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The world’s largest helicopter trade show is traditionally a self-congratulatory time for the civil helicopter industry. But at HAI Heli-Expo 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada, that mood was dampened by a fatal crash that occurred just two weeks before the show — highlighting longstanding industry failures in addressing occupant safety.
Five British sightseeing passengers have now died as the result of the fiery crash of a Papillon Airways Airbus EC130 B4 at the Grand Canyon on Feb. 10: Becky Dobson, Stuart Hill, and Jason Hill, who died at the crash site; and newlyweds Jonathan Udall and Ellie Milward Udall, who died later while hospitalized in Las Vegas.
Jonathan Udall’s parents have already filed a lawsuit against Papillon and Airbus Helicopters, claiming that their son would have survived had the EC130 B4 been equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system (CRFS). The Udalls’ lawyer, Gary Robb, recently represented David Repsher, the Flight For Life nurse who in 2015 sustained burns over 90 percent of his body when the Airbus H125 AStar he was riding in crashed and burned shortly after takeoff.
Repsher received a $100 million settlement from Airbus and Air Methods Corporation on Feb. 1, just days before the Papillon crash. Robb previously secured a $38 million settlement in the 2001 crash of another Papillon sightseeing helicopter, a Eurocopter (now Airbus) AS350 B2. The sole survivor of that crash, Chana Daskal, also suffered severe burns over most of her body in the ensuing post-crash fire.
While the lack of a CRFS in AS350 series helicopters, including the EC130 B4, has long been recognized as a safety problem, not until recently have operators had access to a solution. Although the newest version of the EC130, the H130 (previously known as the EC130 T2) entered service in 2012 with a CRFS as standard equipment, only since 2014 has a rupture-resistant fuel tank been available as an option for the H125 (AS350 B3e) and only since 2016 has it been standard on H125s manufactured in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a CRFS did not become available for legacy AS350 and EC130 B4 helicopters until December 2017, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified a retrofit kit developed by Robertson Fuel Systems and StandardAero. The Robertson/StandardAero tank is a direct replacement for most models of the AS350, including the H125.
At Heli-Expo last week, StandardAero announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Papillon for 40 crash-resistant fuel tanks for Papillon’s fleet of AS350 B3 and EC130 B4 tour helicopters. Also at the show, StandardAero recognized the launch customer for the tank, Air Methods, which has committed to retrofitting its entire fleet with CRFS.
At a ceremony at the StandardAero booth, Air Methods CEO Aaron Todd remarked, “[To] give you a sense of how anxious we were for this day to come, we received the first 20 tanks just a few weeks ago and already have 11 installed on our aircraft, and are going as fast as we possibly can. . . . We invite all of the operators to join with us and embrace this new technology, this new solution, so that we can expand the margin of safety in everything that we do.”
It remains to be seen how many existing AS350 and EC130 operators will install the tanks proactively, rather than waiting for their hands to be forced by a catastrophic accident. However, with thousands of the models flying around the world, even a relatively low uptake of the Robertson/StandardAero solution could quickly overwhelm production capacity.
For that reason, Chris Emerson — the president of Airbus Helicopters’ U.S. subsidiary, Airbus Helicopters, Inc. — is encouraging H125 operators to order rupture-resistant fuel tanks directly from Airbus, leaving more of the Robertson/StandardAero tanks available for legacy operators.