Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 20 seconds.
When it comes to helicopter fuel systems, all available evidence suggests that having some crash-resistant features has a meaningful impact on reducing post-crash fires compared to having none at all. However, not all crash-resistant fuel systems (CRFS) are created equal, as is becoming apparent in the case of the Airbus AS350/H125 AStar series.
The AStar became the focus of a campaign to improve helicopter occupant protection following the fatal crash of a Flight For Life H125 in Frisco, Colorado, in July 2015. Although the model’s susceptibility to post-crash fires was a known problem at that point, dramatic video footage of the Frisco crash galvanized public attention, leading to the creation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of a Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group (ROPWG).
Many of the ROPWG’s recommendations were incorporated into last year’s FAA Reauthorization Act, which requires CRFS for all helicopters manufactured after April 5, 2020. The law stipulates compliance with many, but not all, of the provisions in Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 27/29.952, which mandates CRFS standards for civil helicopters certified after 1994. The exceptions in the new law are intended to make it easier to certify CRFS for legacy models like the AS350 — which received initial FAA type certification in 1977 — while still providing substantially increased levels of occupant protection, as validated by the ROPWG’s analysis of post-crash fires in survivable accidents.
Indeed, complying fully with 27/29.952 is neither easy nor cheap. Airbus certified a retrofit kit solution for newly manufactured H125 (AS350 B3e) helicopters in 2014, but has not yet managed to certify it with the underbelly cargo swing installation used for external loads. The company declined to confirm a report that claimed the installation punctured the fuel system during drop testing, instead telling Vertical, “We are currently in the development phase in order to obtain 27.952 certification of the cargo swing installation and have no comments on specific tests.”
Airbus announced at HAI Heli-Expo earlier this year that starting in 2020 it will be making its CRFS standard on all newly-manufactured H125s, including those produced at its headquarters in Marignane, France (currently, the CRFS is only standard on H125s produced in the United States). Airbus also announced it will expand certification of its CRFS to AS350 B3 and EC130 B4 models in the same timeframe, and will offer the system at its own cost of $44,000.
The company told Vertical that it aims to obtain 27.952 certification of the cargo swing installation by then. “If this certification was to be delayed, for whatever reason, the standard implementation of our CRFS on all new H125s will be maintained so that all customers — including those equipped with a cargo swing — can benefit from this safety enhancement,” Airbus said, emphasizing that even for customers operating with a cargo swing, the CRFS offers significant safety enhancements over the legacy fuel system.
Meanwhile, there is a certified CRFS solution for AStar operators using cargo swings: the aftermarket product jointly developed by Robertson Fuel Systems and StandardAero, which was certified to the standards of 27.952 in December 2017. The Robertson/StandardAero tank is a direct replacement for all AS350 models, including the AS350 C, D/D1, B/B1/B2/BA/B3, H125, and EC130 B4. Although there was a year-long waitlist for the product when it first hit the market, Robertson ramped up production to meet demand, and now cites wait times of around 90 days.