Robinson Helicopters' R22 is equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system.
The Florida-based FlyersRights group is pressing the FAA to retrofit all U.S .helicopters with crash-resistant fuel systems (CRFS) and other safety enhancements, such as easily removable shoulder harnesses.
"I write to strongly urge the FAA to reject the recommendations that helicopter crashworthy standards promulgated over 20 years ago, be again delayed yet again for 3-5 years to indefinitely," according to a Dec. 13 letter from Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights, to FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell. Hudson is also a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC).
"Fuel tank fires and explosions are causing horrific injuries and deaths in numerous otherwise survivable accidents," Hudson wrote in his letter. "They can be nearly entirely prevented with fuel tank bladders. Yet the industry dominated ARAC fails to recommend any retrofitting of the existing 9,000+ fleet, and only limited requirements for newly manufactured helicopters."
Some companies have moved to install CRFS. For example, Robinson Helicopters puts CRFS on its R66, R44 and R22s. In February this year, a Papillon Helicopters flight crashed in the Grand Canyon, resulting in deaths after its fuel system caught fire. Papillon said after the accident that it would retrofit its fleet of helicopters with StandardAero's crash-resistant fuel system.
But a number of companies are not moving to install CRFS. The FAA guidelines provide that newly-manufactured helicopters and those that received type certificates in 1994 or afterward have CRFS, but newer and older make helicopters type certified before 1994 do not have to have CRFS.
The U.S. military has required CRFS in its rotorcraft since the 1970s. That mandate has resulted in a 66 percent reduction in post-crash fires in survivable accidents and an 18 percent reduction in post-crash fires in nonsurvivable accidents. These systems also resulted in a 75 percent reduction in thermal injuries and no thermal fatalities in survivable impact conditions.
"Nearly three years ago, the FAA office dealing with helicopter safety issued an alarming report noting that deaths from helicopter crashes were not declining and the crashworthy standards issued by the FAA were only in effect in about 16 percent of the fleet after over 20 years," according to Hudson's letter. "This was due to the loophole created by the FAA which failed to require compliance by any existing aircraft or any new aircraft unless it involved a new design. These crash standards prevent fuel tank fires and reduce impact trauma from land crashes and deaths from drowning in water crashes. FlyersRights.org estimates the lack of air crash standard compliance causes over 50 unnecessary deaths annually worldwide."
Another issue for FlyersRights is ensuring that passengers can easily remove their safety harnesses in the event of a crash.
In his letter to Elwell, Hudson recommended that the FAA issue an airworthiness directive "requiring all helicopters to be retrofitted within one year with bladder fuel tanks and quick release shoulder harnesses, and to implement the other crashworthiness standards or show cause why they cannot reasonably comply within two years."
"All new helicopters should be required to comply with crash worthiness standards," Hudson wrote. "The cost can and should be borne in part by the manufacturers who have benefited by the lack of enforcement and cuts in the FAA budget devoted to delaying safety standards and granting waivers and exemptions to safety regulations."