NTSB Recommends Crashworthy Fuel Tanks for All New Helicopters

Robinson Helicopters began installing crash-resistant fuel tanks in 2010.  Robinson Helicopters with fuel tanks installed before then tend to catch fire during accidents that, but for the fire, would have been survivable.

The Australian authorities thought that the safer tanks were a good idea.  Enough Robinsons had caught fire after minor accidents that in 2013 the Australian government grounded all RobinsonAustralian R44 Post Crash Fire R44 helicopters operating in Australia until their owners installed the new-style fuel systems.

The NTSB asked the FAA to follow suit and issue a similar order grounding R44 helicopters in this country.  But the FAA refused.  Even assuming the old-style Robinson fuel tanks were needlessly dangerous, the FAA thought they really weren't all that different from the fuel tanks installed in many other older helicopters.  If the FAA grounded Robinsons until they were fixed, they'd have to ground a lot of helicopters produced by other manufacturers as well.

But the FAA has known about the trouble with old-style fuel systems for a very long time. In fact, since 1991, FAA regulations have required manufacturers to install in their helicopters fuel systems that are proven "crash resistant."  Trouble is, those regulations apply only to helicopters designed after 1994.  They do not apply to helicopters that are manufactured today, but were designed (or certified) before 1994.  

Unfortunately, the majority of light helicopters manufactured in the US today were designed before 1994, and so in practice the regulations seldom apply.  The NTSB thinks its time for that to change.  The NTSB's latest safety recommendation asks the FAA to:

Require, for all newly manufactured rotorcraft regardless of the design’s original certification date, that the fuel systems meet the crashworthiness requirements of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 27.952 or 29.952, “Fuel System Crash Resistance.”

What will the FAA do in response to the NTSB's recommendation?  If history is a guide, unfortunately, the FAA will do nothing.

Eddie Andreini Accident: Air Force Documents Reveal Travis Officials Confused by Air Force Regulations

Airport fire trucks must get to a burning plane within three minutes if they are going to save any lives. That's the maximum response time allowed by the National Fire Protection Association, the organization that sets the standard for airport firefighters, including those working at U.S. Air Force bases. 

The survivable atmosphere inside an aircraft fuselage involved in an exterior fuel fire is limited to approximately 3 minutes if the integrity of the airframe is maintained during impact. This time could be substantially reduced if the fuselage is fractured. . . rapid fire control is critical. . .

Aircraft flown in air shows are usually smaller and less fire resistant than transport category aircraft.  At air shows fire trucks need to get to crash sites even quicker – within 60 seconds or less.

The key to getting fire trucks to a crash quickly is to station the trucks near to where an accident is most likely to occur.  Normally, that might be the end of the active runway.  But most air show crashes occur at “show center” rather than the end of the runway.  As one Travis Air Force witness put it, show center is where ‘the majority of dangerous events focus.”  At air shows, that's where fire trucks should be waiting.

Eddie's Accident

On May 4, Eddie Andreini was flying a routine at the Travis Air Force Base open house.  He was attempting a stunt known as an inverted ribbon cut.  Something went wrong.  Eddie's Stearman slid upside down along the runway, coming to a stop at smack dab show center. Eddie was uninjured but was trapped inside.  A fire started almost immediately.  Air Force personnel say that they saw Eddie struggling to get out as he waited for the fire trucks to save him.  One minute passed, then two, then three.  But the crash trucks didn't come.  When they finally did, it was too late. 

What happened?

The Air Force refused to explain why it took so long for its fire trucks to reach Eddie.  So we sued it under the Freedom of Information Act.  We now have internal Air Force documents showing that the brass didn’t understand the Air Force’s own regulations.  They mistakenly believed regulations prohibited them from stationing fire trucks near show center.  So instead, the Air Force positioned the fire trucks more than a mile and a half away. 

The Travis speed limit for fire trucks is 45 mph.  So it took the first fire truck (a “Rapid Intervention Vehicle”) more than four minutes to get to Eddie.  Had the Air Force positioned even one truck at show center--as it was supposed to--firemen would have gotten to Eddie within a minute and Eddie would have been saved.   

Regulations can be confusing. Was the Air Force’s mistake understandable?  Not really. The manual that Travis show organizers had in hand--and agreed to follow--makes clear that fire trucks belong at show center.  According to that manual, the personnel who were permitted in the “aerobatic box” (the area in which performers fly) included “demonstration teams and fire/rescue.” (Page 28.) The manual goes on to direct that fire trucks should be located “with immediate access to the show line” (page 34) – not a mile and a half away. 

To the extent the Air Force brass was confused, the FAA cleared things up for them when, a week before the air show, it told Travis that crash trucks did indeed belong “in the box” near show center.   

Our team, specifically the air ops staff, was led to believe that we could not put an emergency vehicle (or anything else) inside the Show Box at Show Center, because it was sterile and protected.  We learned that this was not correct about a week before the show after [name redacted] discussed it with [name redacted] of the FAA.  We learned that we could place airshow official vehicles or people in the aerobatic box."

Travis had time

The Air Force's own documents prove that Travis officials had a week before the show was to begin to correct their mistake and arrange for the trucks to be stationed at show center. But the Travis officials had already decided that the fire trucks were going to be positioned where they couldn't be of any use to a performer.  Having made a plan, they weren't going to change, even if it put lives at risk unnecessarily.

"I'll say it again, I need the trucks on the runway!  I need the trucks on the runway now!"

The Travis Command Post recording is difficult to listen to. After hearing it, it's hard to believe that Travis still tells the public that its fire department responded to the crash in an "exemplary" fashion.

(Notes:  At 2:14, one of Eddie’s crew tried to fight fire with a hand-held extinguisher.  The extinguisher was too small and was expended in seconds.  By that time, the Rapid Intervention Vehicle had not yet even left its station.  The Air Force documents do not explain why it took so long for the truck to roll.  It finally arrives on scene after the 4 minute mark.  The time stamps were placed on the photos by Air Force.)

GAMA Responds to USA Today Claims re Post-Crash Fires

USA Today ran Thomas Frank's story on the unnecessary risks posed by post-crash aircraft fires.  According to Frank's article, small aircraft fires have killed at least 600 people since 1993, burning them alive or suffocating them after otherwise survivable accidents.  Hundreds more have survived post crash fires but have been horribly burned.

I’ve written many times over the years that no one should be burned in an otherwise survivable aviation accident.  The technology to prevent post crash fires has been around since the war in Vietnam.

The FAA has not required manufacturers to install such technology because it would be too costly – between $556 and $5,710 per aircraft.  That doesn’t sound like much, but according to the FAA, it doesn’t pencil out when compared to the dollar value of the lives that would be saved.  But the USA Today article points out that, in running the calculations, the FAA undervalued human life.  For example, while the EPA used a value of $3.3 million per life when it justified regulation to protect the ozone, the FAA used a lower value -- just $1 million per life -- when it ran the numbers on post-crash fires.  No wonder the costs didn’t pencil.

Of course, just because the FAA doesn’t require manufacturers to keep their aircraft safe from post-crash fires, it doesn’t mean that the manufacturers can’t do so on their own. 

Today the manufacturers responded to the USA Today article, suggesting that it was inaccurate and one-sided.

GAMA’s Greg Bowles talked for more than three hours with Mr. Frank [the article’s author] about general aviation safety to include preventing post-crash fires through improved crashworthiness and manufacturers’ efforts to mitigate the effects of accidents for Mr. Frank’s previous series, “Unfit for Flight.” Unfortunately, Mr. Frank chose not to include the bulk of Mr. Bowles’ remarks that chronicled our industry’s successful efforts to continue to improve our safety record.

The GAMA response goes on to talk about all the things the manufacturers are doing to help prevent planes from crashing.  It says nothing, however, about what it is doing to ensure that when they do inevitably crash, they don’t catch fire.  

USA Today: Cover-ups Mask Roots of Small-Aircraft Crashes

A few hours ago, USA Today published a lengthy investigative report devoted to small aircraft crashes. The conclusion:  aviation manufacturers have long concealed the fact that their defectively designed products cause aircraft crashes and injures. And the investigating agencies, including the NTSB and FAA, let them get away with it.

The report covers many of the issues we’ve touched upon before on this blog, from defective carburetors, to defective pilot seats, to faulty ice-protection systems. The report also covered a subject we’ve covered on this blog extensively – post crash helicopter fires in otherwise survivable accidents:

One of the most gruesome and long-standing problems has caused scores of people to be burned alive or asphyxiated in fires that erupt after helicopter crashes. Such deaths are notorious because they can occur after minor crashes, hard landings and rollovers that themselves don't kill or even injure helicopter occupants. The impact can rupture helicopter fuel tanks, sending fuel gushing out, where it ignites into a lethal inferno.

Using autopsy reports and crash records, USA TODAY identified 79 people killed and 28 injured since 1992 by helicopter fires following low-impact crashes. In 36 non-fatal crashes, fire destroyed or substantially damaged helicopters after minor incidents such as rollovers, crash reports show.

The report didn’t mention the most recent Robinson fire that killed the R44's pilot at Birchwood Airport in Alaska just two weeks ago.

Pilot error?

I've been saying for years that many crashes that the NTSB attributes to "pilot error" simply aren't. The USA Today report backs that up.  The report discussed the fatal crash of a single engine Piper following engine failure.  The NTSB chalked up the engine failure to pilot error.  But, as it turns out, the crash was caused by a defective carburetor float. The judge handling the case noted that the carburetor manufacturer had received more than 100 warranty claims for similar problems before the crash. Yet none of that product history made it into the NSTB report.

Ruling against Lycoming  [the engine manufacturer] and Precision [the carburetor manufacturer], Philadelphia Judge Matthew Carrafiello found evidence both might be culpable. Precision received more than 100 warranty claims concerning carburetor defects, the judge said, and Lycoming continued to use the carburetors even though it "knew of ongoing problems" with the carburetors "and of numerous plane crashes resulting from such problems.

None of that information was included in the NTSB investigation, which was aided by Lycoming and Precision and blamed Andy Bryan, the pilot, for "failure to abort the takeoff" and "failure to maintain adequate airspeed during takeoff."

According to the report, many of the crashes that the NTSB concludes are due to pilot error are actually due to defectively designed aircraft.

Federal accident investigators repeatedly overlooked defects and other dangers of private aviation as they blamed individual pilots for the overwhelming number of crashes of small airplanes and helicopters . . . The failure of crash investigators to find defective parts, dangerous aircraft designs, inadequate safety features and weak government oversight helped allow hidden hazards to persist for decades, killing or injuring thousands of pilots and passengers . . .

Manufacturers mislead the FAA

Part of the problem is that the NTSB does not travel to the site of many small airplane crashes, leaving the on-scene investigation to the FAA. Unfortunately, according to a former NTSB investigator, the FAA personnel don’t have the same investigative experience as the NTSB investigators and are easily duped by the manufacturers.

Many times what happens now is that when the accident occurs, the technical rep of the (manufacturing) company will call the NTSB and say we'll be party (to the investigation), we'll go out there and let you know what we see … the only people on scene would be perhaps an FAA guy and the field rep of the manufacturer," said Douglas Herlihy, a former NTSB investigator who now reconstructs crashes, often for plaintiffs in lawsuits against manufacturers.

"If you (the NTSB) are not there, you've got the representative from the company at the scene. His job is to skew the facts, to ignore the product difficulties and to remove the question of liability," Herlihy said.

NTSB Asks FAA To Ground R44's WIth Aluminum Fuel Tanks

Robinson Helicopters has been installing bladder-style fuel tanks in its R44 helicopters since 2009. But much of the fleet manufactured before then is still flying with the old-style aluminum tanks that tend to rupture in otherwise minor accidents.

 Last year, following a string of needless post-crash R44 fires, the Australian civil aviation authorities grounded all R44 helicopters until their owners retrofitted them with the new bladder-style tanks.  Not a bad idea.

 The FAA refused to follow the Aussies' lead, saying that "R44 fuel system crashworthiness does not appear inconsistent with other similar helicopters."  Because most other helicopters do not tend to explode in otherwise survivable accidents, no one was sure what the FAA was talking about. Now the NTSB is asking the FAA to reconsider and to ground Robinson R44 helicopters that aren't retrofitted with the safer bladder tanks.  According to the NTSB, requiring owners to retrofit their helicopters will "prevent accidents and save lives."  

It's hard to understand why the FAA is so reluctant to mandate the retrofits.

 

NTSB Safety Recommendation by Mike Danko

Cirrus Burns After Crashing at Bolingbrook

The Cirrus SR20 burst into flames on impact.  The pilot's wife died inside.  The pilot escaped from the wreckage, but died from his burn injuries in the hospital.Cirrus SR20 Crash at Bolingbrook

Some say that a properly designed aircraft should not catch fire in an otherwise survivable accident.  We know this crash was survivable, because the pilot was able to walk away from the wreckage.  If it weren't for the post-crash fire, the pilot likely would have survived.

The Cirrus Aircraft boasts many safety features, such as its rocket-propelled parachute.  But the Bolingbrook crash is one more data point tending to show that the Cirrus seems to be unusually susceptible to post crash fires, especially when compared to other modern aircraft.  

Another Robinson R44 Helicopter Explodes on Impact

This Robinson R44 crash was in Australia. 

Witnesses said that nearby restaurant staff “grabbed every fire extinguisher in the building, but there were too many flames . . . There was nothing anyone could do.”

No occupant of a properly-designed helicopter should be burned in an otherwise survivable impact. Unfortunately, the fuel tanks installed in all Robinson R44 helicopters manufactured before 2010 are not properly designed

On Friday, the ATSB (the Australian equivalent of the NTSB) confirmed that the accident helicopter was equipped with the all-aluminum fuel tanks, rather than the bladder-type tanks Sydney Robinson R44 Explodes on Impactnow available for retrofit.  The ATSB urged all R44 owners to get their tanks retrofitted after the February 4, 2012 R44 crash that killed noted Australian filmmakers Andrew Wight and Mike deGruy. But less than half of the 4000 Robinson Helicopters with the defective tanks have been fixed.

Passengers killed in this latest crash included a couple who were checking out their wedding venue.

Other low-impact R44 helicopter crashes that have resulted in fires since the new tanks have been made available:

 

Another Robinson R44 Burns on Impact

Another Robinson R44 Helicopter rolled over and almost immediately caught fire.  This time it was at Slaton Municipal Airport in Slaton, Texas.  According to the Avalanche-Journal, the Robinson R44 firehelicopter was engulfed in flames within 10 seconds of the helicopter rolling onto its side.

Fortunately, the pilot got out.  But the R44 is racking up quite a record for catching fire in otherwise survivable accidents. The problem is that once the helicopter's rotor blades strike the ground, its transmission rips into the fuel tank.  See here, here, and maybe here

These fires aren't supposed to happen. In 2010, Robinson began using a different fuel tank that is supposed to be resistant to punctures. But it didn't retrofit the existing fleet.  This aircraft was a 2004 model.

 

Cirrus Crash at Falmouth: Survivable But Aircraft Burns

Cirrus Fire at FalmouthThe Cirrus SR22 crashed while landing at Falmouth Airpark in Massachusetts and immediately exploded in a fireball.  One occupant died.  Two others, however, survived, only to be badly burned in the post-crash fire.

Some say that, if properly designed, an aircraft should not burn as a result of an otherwise survivable impact. Technology that prevents such fires has existed since the 70's.

Landing at Falmouth AirparkOf course, many aircraft flying today were designed before such technology became available.  But the Cirrus was designed in the '90's. One might expect that a fire after a survivable Cirrus crash should be a rare event.  But that doesn't seem to be the case. 

Cirrus critics, pointing to the Cirrus crash at Scottsdale, among others, want to know why the aircraft seems to be more prone than legacy aircraft to post-crash fires, rather than less.  Some blame the fact that the Cirrus is constructed of composite material, while older aircraft are metal.  I'm not sure that's an explanation, since I have been unable to find a report of anyone being burned in a Diamond aircraft.  Diamond aircraft compete with Cirrus and are also of composite construction.

More Proof That Post-Crash Helicopter Fires Are Unnecessary

There was no fire.  That allowed both occupants to survive.

No, not a miracle.  Just a properly designed fuel system.

No post-crash fire in Arizona Helicopter Crash

And everyone walked away.

The video is proof that if it has a properly designed fuel system, a helicopter need not catch fire after an otherwise survivable accident.

Hope the folks at the Robinson Helicopter factory take note. 

 

Is the R44 the Ford Pinto of Helicopters?

Can any question remain about the R44's tendency to roll over and catch fire?  It happened again yesterday, in Glendale Arizona.  This time, the helicopter had barely gotten off the ground. R44 Fire

Fortunately, no one was hurt.  But the story is becoming all too familiar. According to the Arizona Republic:

A mechanic was testing the engine of the Robinson R-44 helicopter when he lost control and it came down on its side and caught fire.

Helicopters aren't supposed to catch fire in survivable accidents.  But Robinsons do just that because their fuel tanks are defectively designed.  This latest fire happened little more than a few weeks after an R44 accident killed filmmakers Mike deGruy and Andrew Wight.  That crash led well-known aviation attorney Ladd Sanger to call the Robinson R44 the "Ford Pinto" of helicopters.

Seems as though there may be something to that.

Robinson R44 Fuel Tank Design Implicated in Filmmakers' Crash?

Robinson Helicopter Company likes to say that its helicopters are safe in crashes. According to an excerpt from Robinson Safety Notice SN-10:

The R22 and R44 have demonstrated excellent crashworthiness as long as the pilot flies the aircraft all the way to the ground . . .The ship may roll over and be severely damaged, but the occupants have an excellent chance of walking away from it without injury.

As it turns out, that’s not quite true. When they roll over, Robinson helicoptdeGruy/Wright R44 Wreckageers, in particular R44's, have a tendency to catch fire and explode.  That makes walking away from a crash pretty much impossible.

Robinson fixed the problem beginning with helicopters it manufactured in 2010 by installing better fuel tanks.  But that didn't help Mike deGruy and Andrew Wight, who were aboard VH-COK, a 2004 model that crashed February 4 in Australia.

A photograph of the aircraft (above) shows that the ship rolled over on its side, just as Robinson says.  There's little crush R44 Wreckage at Mammothdamage to the cockpit and so the crash looks survivable.  Except for the devastating post-crash fire.

The photo of the deGruy wreckage looks remarkably similar to the wreckage of the September 2010 R44 crash in Mammoth, California (left).  That helicopter rolled over and burned as well.

There's no reason for anyone to be burned in an otherwise survivable helicopter accident. Looks as though deGruy and Wright may be added to the list of those who died needlessly due to the dangerous and defective Robinson fuel system.

Cirrus Crash at Scottsdale Raises Questions About Fuel System Design Safety

Some say that Cirrus aircraft are improperly designed because they tend to catch fire on impact more frequently than other aircraft, such as those manufactured by Cirrus competitors, like Diamond or Cessna. And there are plenty of examples of post-crash Cirrus fires to talk about. Critics argue that those fires prove that the aircraft is unduly dangerous and defective.

An aircraft should be designed such that no one is burned to death in an otherwise Cirrus Fuel Portsurvivable accident. At least, that’s the design standard in the auto industry. It became the standard when, during the 1970's, Bell Helicopters showed that some simple engineering enhancements could virtually eliminate post-crash fires in survivable Huey helicopter accidents.  That technology has been around now for 40 years. The technology works in helicopters and cars, so there’s no reason for a properly designed, modern airplanes to catch fire either.

But the key is that the crash must be otherwise survivable. If the crash is not otherwise survivable, the post-crash fire is irrelevant to the fate of the occupants. To date, the Cirrus fires that critics point to (like this one, and this one) were accidents that likely would have been fatal regardless of whether there was a post crash fire. So from those accidents, no conclusions about the fuel system's safety can be drawn.

But this morning, everything changed. A Cirrus crashed in Phoenix while on approach to land at Scottsdale Airport.  Both the pilot and the passenger survived the impact. But then a fire broke out.  The fire killed one occupant and badly burned the other.   

Unlike other Cirrus crashes, the Scottsdale crash was undeniably survivable. The post - crash fire raises legitimate questions about whether the Cirrus fuel system is as crashworthy as it should be.

Robinson R44 Design Defect Leads to Post-Crash Fires

Robinson Helicopter Company has long touted the crashworthiness of its helicopters. An excerpt from Robinson Safety Notice SN-10, which dates back to 1982:

The R22 and R44 have demonstrated excellent crashworthiness as long as the pilot flies the aircraft all the way to the ground . . .The ship may roll over and be severely damaged, but the occupants have an excellent chance of walking away from it without injury.

That’s turned out to be not quite true. Sure, occupants may survive the initial rollover without injury. But because of the way it is designed, the helicopter is prone to catching fire and burning the occupants before they have a chance to get out.  There has been a string of such R44 N2153Saccidents, the most recent being the September 16 Robinson crash at Mammoth, California.

The R44 helicopter involved in that accident, N2153S, experienced a problem on takeoff.  The pilot "flew the aircraft all the way to the ground," just as he was supposed to. When the helicopter touched down, it rolled over.  As advertised, the two occupants survived the rollover uninjured.  But almost immediately, fuel rushed into the cabin, a fire erupted, and both occupants were badly burned.

As I explained here, there is no reason for an occupant to be burned in that sort of mishap. Technology has existed since the 1970's that can almost completely eliminate post-crash fires in otherwise survivable helicopter accidents.  The technology is not particularly expensive, fancy, or heavy.

In the case of the Robinson helicopter, the biggest problem is the aircraft's transmission. In any type of rollover accident, the transmission can puncture the fuel tank. The fix is simple: replace the rigid fuel tank with a soft bladder tank that won't rupture. 

Robinson has known about the problem for years.  But instead of fixing it, Robinson tried to dodge liability by putting the problem back on the owners. While continuing to tout the aircraft's crashworthiness, in 2006 it posted on its website a "safety noticeNo Nomex On Robinson Websiteadvising that anyone flying in one of its aircraft should wear fire retardant clothing head-to-toe.

To reduce the risk of injury in a post-crash fire, it is strongly recommended that a fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet be worn by all occupants.

Robinson didn't seriously expect any occupants to wear that kind of clothing.  It's hot, uncomfortable, and generally inconvenient.  The "strong recommendation" was strictly a "CYA" move.  If Robinson was serious about it, it wouldn't have posted on its website pictures of people flying Robinson helicopters in shorts and t-shirts. (One such picture right.)  Rather, it would show everyone wearing head-to-toe Nomex. But that sort of "advertising" would kill sales.

The unnecessary burn injuries continued. Finally, in December 2009, Robinson conceded that there was indeed a better way and announced that all new R-44’s will be equipped with bladder tanks.

In a continuing effort to improve the R44 fuel sytem’s resistance to a post-accident fuel leak, current production R44s now feature bladder-type fuel tanks, flexible fuel lines and other modifications.

Great news. But what about the thousands of Robinson helicopters produced before last December without bladder tanks?  They are, without a doubt, defective.  The defect has caused, and will continue to cause, needless burn injuries.  The defect and the resulting injuries are Robinson's responsibility.

No One Should Suffer Burn Injuries in a Survivable Helicopter Crash

During the Vietnam war, hundreds of soldiers suffered serious burn injuries following otherwise survivable Huey helicopter crashes.  In 1970, Bell Helicopter responded by developing a crashworthy Huey photo by Cranefuel system and installing it in the new Hueys it produced.  The crashworthy system included stronger fuel cells, breakaway fuel lines, and cutoff valves.  

The Army kept track of the effectiveness of the new fuel system.  Over the next 39 months, 895 helicopters without the new system crashed.  Post impact fires resulted in 52 burn fatalities and 31 burn injuries.  Over the same time period, 702 helicopters with the new crashworthy fuel system went down.  Remarkably, there was not a single thermal injury or death in any of those crashes.  That was enough to convince the Army.  After that, it required all its helicopters to be manufactured with the crashworthy fuel system.   

Today, no one should be burned in an otherwise survivable helicopter accident.  The technology has long existed to almost completely eliminate post-crash helicopter fires. But while the risk has been virtually eliminated in military helicopter operations, post crash fires are still the single biggest hazard to survivors of civilian helicopter crashes. (pdf) That's because some civilian helicopter manufacturers have resisted incorporating crashworthy fuel systems into their designs.    

Helicopter manufacturers know that some of the aircraft they manufacturer will inevitably be involved in accidents.  They must take steps to make their civilian helicopters reasonably safe in the event of an accident, just as they do when building helicopters for the military.  If someone is burned in a civilian helicopter crash, then the aircraft's design may well be proven to be defective, and the manufacturer held accountable for the injuries its design has caused.