Commercial, Regulatory, Safety

Safety observers concerned by possible delays in crash-resistant fuel system retrofits

By Frank Wolfe | January 3, 2019
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Airbus is installing a crash-resistant fuel tank by Robertson Fuel Systems and StandardAero on AS350 helicopters

While the FAA Re-Authorization Act, P.L. 115-254, requires all newly manufactured helicopters, including those type certified before 1994, to have crash-resistant fuel systems (CRFS), some safety observers are concerned that the law does not require the retrofit of such systems on existing helicopters type certified before 1994.

Part 44737 of the law gives helicopter manufacturers 18 months to comply with the inclusion of the systems on all newly built helicopters and stipulates that the FAA administrator "will expedite the certification and validation of United States and foreign type designs and retrofit kits that improve fuel system crash-worthiness; and not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this section, and periodically thereafter, issue a bulletin to inform rotor craft owners and operators of available modifications to improve fuel system crash-worthiness; and urge that such modifications be installed as soon as practicable."

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Last month, Paul Hudson, the CEO of FlyersRights and a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC), wrote in a letter to FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell that "the industry dominated ARAC fails to recommend any retrofitting of the existing 9,000+ fleet, and only limited requirements for newly manufactured helicopters."

"The calculated benefit of retrofitting is $1 billion over 10 years and the cost of retrofitting would be far less, yet the recommendation is against any real or timely mandate, estimating 3-5 years for partial compliance after final rule adopted, if ever," Hudson wrote.

Among the nearly two-dozen members of ARAC are representatives from Helicopter Association International, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and Pratt & Whitney. Yvette Rose, a senior vice president of the Cargo Airline Association, chairs ARAC, while David Oord, the senior director of government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, is the vice chair.

Hudson was the only member of ARAC who voted not to approve the report recommendations last September of the Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group (ROPWG), established by ARAC in 2015.

That working group, chaired by Dennis Shanahan, the owner of California-based consulting firm Injury Analysis, LLC, issued a number of recommendations, including two high priority ones--that the FAA "require, in all rotorcraft, the installation (retrofit) of crash-resistant fuel bladders that meet the requirements of the 50-foot fuel cell drop test in or out of structure, and that demonstrate a minimum of 250 lb. puncture resistances" and that the FAA "require installation (retrofit) and proper usage of upper torso restraints (shoulder harnesses) in all rotorcraft seating positions in all rotorcraft."

At the September 20 meeting of ARAC, Shanahan, in response to a question on the timeline for implementation of the working group recommendations, "stated that the working group could not agree on specific timelines but that most members felt the timeline should be 3-5 years," according to the minutes of the ARAC meeting. "Mr. Shanahan noted that the working group generally felt the first two high priority items need to happen very quickly."

Transportation rotorcraft classified under 14 CFR, Part 29--those weighing more than 20,000 pounds--may have particular problems in installing crash-resistant fuel systems, according to the working group report.

"For Part 29, it would be extremely difficult to retrofit approximately 49 percent of fielded helicopters with CRFS," the report said. "Many of these low feasibility helicopters were developed 40+ years ago. As a result, engineering development data is hard to find, and the designs were based on standards dramatically different from those required for compliance with the CRFS requirements analyzed. Many helicopters have fuel tanks located deep inside the airframe. Replacing these tanks with CRFS tanks would require substantial disassembly and modification of the airframe using tools and expertise found primarily in an OEM factory setting."

Airbus and Sikorsky were two helicopter companies that did not agree with the working group recommendations in their entirety. Airbus said that the FAA should "strongly recommend, rather than require," the installation of crash-resistant fuel bladders meeting the 50 foot drop test and 250 pound puncture resistance requirements, while Sikorsky said that the report "has not demonstrated the basis of the recommendation to retrofit CRFS into Part 29 aircraft" and that the company "would rather the [working group] recommend, not require, CRFS be retrofitted in Part 29 Transport Category aircraft."

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado, who helped spearhead the provision on CRFS in the FAA Re-Authorization Act, praised the latter as a spur to increased helicopter safety.

"The passage of the FAA Re-Authorization Act of 2018 ushered in a new standard of safety for fuel systems on all newly manufactured rotorcraft within 18 months and requires the FAA to encourage the retrofitting of existing rotorcraft," Perlmutter wrote in an email to R&WI. "I look forward to continuing to work with the FAA, ARAC, ROPWG, and industry stakeholders on how to encourage and expedite retrofits for the existing rotorcraft fleet.”

Perlmutter and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, worked on the CRFS provision after the crash-caused rupture of a fuel tank on a Flight for Life AS350 helicopter in July, 2015 in Frisco, Colorado killed the pilot, seriously injured one flight nurse, and severely disfigured Dave Repsher, another flight nurse. Last year, Airbus and Air Methods Corp. reached a $100 million settlement with Repsher's family.

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