Helicopter Fuel Tank Explosions Gets NTSB’s Attention


In a Safety Recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is finally urging them to take action on Airbus (formerly known as Eurocopter) helicopters to incorporate crash-resistant fuel systems into their helicopters. This safety recommendation was prompted by numerous crashes, including most recently two accidents in 2015, resulting in fatal or serious injuries due to post-crash fires that otherwise could have been survivable. Due to design defects, these fuel systems are known to rupture on impact, resulting in the death and injury of thousands of passengers and pilots.

Slack & Davis, a law firm that has handled more than a dozen helicopter crash cases involving post-crash fires caused by compromised fuel systems, has been advocating this change for years. “We identified the lack of a crashworthy fuel system in several helicopters and started advocating a design change ten years ago,” said Ladd Sanger, an attorney who was instrumental in getting Robinson Helicopter Company to change the design of the fuel system of the R-44 helicopter reduce the likelihood of post-crash fires. “We are proud that we have been able to get one manufacturer to change its design to incorporate design changes which make the fuel system more robust in the event of a crash. Unfortunately, otherwise survivable post-crash fires have continued to occur because some manufacturers have ignored the problem until they are faced with the consequences of their poor designs through the civil justice system.”

In October of 1994 the FAA changed the standards governing certification requiring that the fuel tank systems could withstand a 50-foot drop without leakage. Sanger explains that Airbus Helicopters’ (formerly Eurocopter) AS-350 model helicopters received their FAA certification in December of 1977. Although the helicopter’s design has evolved and Airbus Helicopters has made incremental redesigns of its fuel tank system over the years, the company still relies on the old 1977 certification tests and approvals for helicopters built today.

“In the Colorado crash noted in the NTSB’s memo, the AS-350 B3 fuel system is not crashworthy. This was a survivable crash, but for the compromised fuel system, these injuries would have been much less severe and likely not fatal,” Sanger said. “Airbus has known about the vulnerabilities of its design for years yet the company continues to this day to hide behind the legal defense that the helicopter is safe because it received FAA certification. As the NTSB has found, the FAA certification has been inadequate because of the reality is the fuel systems in these helicopters rupture in even relatively minor crashes.”

Thankfully for some of Slack & Davis’ clients, they were only exposed to chemical burns from the fuel, not a horrific burn injury or death. Sanger said, “They were the lucky ones, as the jet fuel did not ignite. Hopefully the industry will use the NTSB’s recommendation to bring about real change to the fuel system and not hide behind the fact that the FAA certified the helicopter’s original design nearly 40 years ago.”