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Airbus Helicopters offering free crash-resistant fuel systems for U.S. customers

By Elan Head | April 4, 2024

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 37 seconds.

The U.S. affiliate of Airbus Helicopters is now offering crash-resistant fuel system (CRFS) retrofit kits free of charge for select helicopter models registered in the United States.

Airbus Helicopters Inc. (AHI) confirmed that customers with U.S.-registered AS350 B3, H125 (AS350 B3e), and EC130 B4 helicopters are eligible for the free CRFS retrofits. According to an Airbus spokesperson, the decision to offer the retrofits at no cost was made by AHI “in the frame of its own commercial policy to further encourage U.S. operators to equip their helicopters as a number of operators have not installed the retrofit despite all of the commercial incentives offered over the years.”

Airbus said that installation of the CRFS should require around 150 to 200 labor hours depending on the aircraft configuration and can be performed during scheduled maintenance to minimize downtime.

“Customers have the option of installing the kits themselves at their own facilities, or bringing their helicopters to [AHI] or an AHI-authorized service center for installation. We believe many customers will be able to perform the retrofit themselves without incurring third-party installation costs. The CRFS kit is being offered free of charge as long as it is installed in a timely manner,” the company told Vertical.

AHI first announced the offer in a letter to customers dated Dec. 22, 2023, which directs them to contact their regional customer support manager to place an order.

“Safety and Quality are the foundation of business at Airbus and come first in everything we do,” the letter states. “Our number one priority remains the continued safe transport of everyone and everything that flies aboard an Airbus helicopter. Consequently, improving the crashworthiness of Airbus helicopters in the event of an accident is of paramount importance.”

At the time the letter was issued, Airbus was moving toward a jury trial in a wrongful death suit brought by Philip and Marlene Udall, the parents of Jonathan Udall of the U.K. Thirty-one years old and newly married, Jonathan was aboard an EC130 B4 operated by Papillon Airways along with his wife, Ellie, and friends when the helicopter spun out of control and crashed in a remote area of the Grand Canyon during a sightseeing tour in February 2018.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that all seven occupants of the helicopter survived the initial impact but sustained significant burn injuries in the immediate post-crash fire. Three of the Udalls’ friends — Becky Dobson, Stuart Hill, and Jason Hill — were pronounced dead at the scene. Jonathan passed away after nearly two weeks in the hospital and Ellie died a few days later. The pilot and another passenger survived with serious injuries.

In an interview with Vertical, Philip Udall recalled that he was in the hospital with his son when he began to suspect that “something wasn’t right” about the severity of the accident. Through online searches, he began to learn about the history of post-crash fires in AS350 and EC130 helicopters, which gained attention following the high-profile fatal crash of a Flight For Life helicopter in 2015. Because the original type certificate for these models pre-dated stringent CRFS standards adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1994, Airbus was not forced to comply with the standards, and continued to build new helicopters with fuel systems that were dangerously susceptible to post-crash fires.

“I [had] my laptop with me and away I went . . . and then it all began to gradually unfold as to what the current situation was, which was pretty horrific really,” Philip said. The Udalls reached out to aviation attorney Gary Robb, who had previously represented Flight For Life survivor David Repsher and his wife, Amanda. David sustained burns over 90 percent of his body and spent more than a year in the hospital following the accident. In 2018, the Repshers reached a settlement with Airbus and Air Methods, the operator of the helicopter, in the amount of $100 million.

A Flight For Life AS350 B3. Airbus has offered some incentives to encourage operators to retrofit with CRFS, including selling its own retrofit kits at cost. Mike Reyno Photo

The Udalls’ legal battle lasted nearly six years, with Airbus at one point petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the case to federal court from the Clark County District Court in Nevada. In January of this year, the Udalls finally settled with Airbus and Papillon for $100 million, with Airbus contributing $75.4 million of the total (compared to a little over $55 million in the Repshers’ settlement).

Like the Repshers, the Udalls refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement, allowing them to speak freely about their experiences and to advocate for broad adoption of CRFS. Advocacy by the Repshers and Karen Mahany — the widow of pilot Patrick Mahany, who was killed in the Flight For Life crash — helped push Congress to mandate CRFS in all new-build helicopters operating in the U.S. starting in 2020. That requirement did not apply to older aircraft, however, and there are still many helicopters flying in the U.S. and elsewhere without this basic safety feature.

As previously reported by Vertical, Airbus has offered some incentives to encourage operators to retrofit with CRFS, including selling its own retrofit kits at cost (estimated at $44,000 in 2019). Airbus has also offered a $25,000 training credit to customers who purchase a CRFS retrofit kit from either Airbus or StandardAero, which worked with Robertson Fuel Systems to develop a CRFS suitable for all models of the AS350 and EC130 in 2017. However, uptake has been slow, in part because operators have been reluctant to invest tens of thousands of dollars in upgrading older aircraft in the absence of a regulatory requirement.

Even with AHI’s new policy of offering kits free of charge, Robb contends that the company should be doing more to encourage retrofits.

“From a liability standpoint, there should not be a helicopter flown that does not have the basic crash-resistant fuel system,” he told Vertical. “If this were a true retrofit, there’d be an SB [service bulletin], there’d be an SIN [safety information notice].” Airbus’s letter to customers, which has not been widely promoted, is “pretty lame in our judgment,” he said.

Robb also questioned why Airbus is not extending free CRFS retrofits to customers outside of the U.S., given how many AS350 and EC130 B4 helicopters operate in other parts of the world.

“I will tell you what I suspect to be the reason,” he said. “[It’s] because the civil litigation system in those countries does not result in the kind of accountability as it does in the U.S. and it’s a real testament to our civil justice system in the United States that they fear these lawsuits so much that they’re willing to take the backlash for this letter in order to try and decrease their liability.”

Airbus declined to respond to a question from Vertical regarding whether it plans to extend the CRFS retrofit offer to customers outside the U.S. The company also declined to comment on whether AHI will reimburse prior purchases of CRFS retrofit kits by U.S. customers, although its Dec. 22 letter says that a commercial policy on this subject “will be forthcoming.”

Philip and Marlene Udall said they plan to work alongside the Repshers to help advocate for broader CRFS adoption, with a special emphasis on encouraging uptake in the U.K. and Europe.

“It’s beyond belief that it’s gone on as long as it has,” Marlene said of helicopters flying without CRFS. “We can’t bring Jonathan back, but we can make sure that some good comes out of it.”

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