KUSA – As soon as Don Sather saw the flames, he thought the worst. No one was going to survive the Flight for Life helicopter crash he had just witnessed.
"There was immediate smoke, and then I saw the flames," Sather said.
It didn't make sense, he thought. Why was there such an intense fire?
He would go on to tell an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board he estimated the helicopter that crashed in Frisco, Colorado, on July 3 was close to 30 feet in the air when it went down.
"My impression was the immediate impact would have been survivable with injury," Sather told 9Wants to Know.
It's still not clear what killed pilot Pat Mahany, but the fire Sather and so many others witnessed didn't start until after the helicopter hit the ground. Two others survived, but flight nurse Dave Repsher remains hospitalized with life-threatening burns.
Dispatch recordings and copies of 911 calls obtained by 9Wants to Know indicate the fire erupted quickly and proved difficult for firefighters to fight.
The NTSB will take months to conclude what downed the AS-350, but the post-crash fire has already led to renewed questions about the safety of the country's civilian helicopter fleet. The NTSB reports as many as 85 percent of the helicopters in the US built since 1994 do not have crash-resistant fuel systems.
CERTIFICATION COMPLICATES CRFS REQUIREMENTS
Air Methods, the operator of the helicopter that crashed, has not indicated if the Flight-for-Life helicopter had any crash resistant fuel system on board, but a 9Wants to Know investigation highlights the fact that it wasn't required to have one even though the helicopter was less than a year old.
The AS-350, currently manufactured by Airbus, was certified to fly in 1977, and while the aircraft has undergone periodic upgrades since then, it's still not required by the FAA to have a crash resistant fuel system (CRFS) on board. That's because the requirement to use a CRFS on helicopters came in 1994, and all helicopters, regardless of age, certified before then are essentially exempt from the FAA's edict.
Texas attorney Ladd Sanger has made a living being the proverbial thorn in the side of aircraft manufacturers and operators. He has investigated crashes of the AS-350 in Oklahoma City, Seattle and Tucson as of late and has concluded Airbus needs to do more to protect the fuel system from leakage after a survivable crash.
He calls the Frisco crash a perfect example of why he believes that to be the case.
"It's exactly what I've been telling the manufacturer, Airbus Helicopters, for several years. They have a problem with their helicopter, and they need to fix this problem," he said.
Airbus issued a statement to 9Wants to Know that read, "Everyone at Airbus Helicopters is extremely saddened by this accident and our thoughts are with the victims and their families… Please note that the AS350 B3e meets all the applicable certification standards. In order to improve safety beyond the requirements applicable to this aircraft, Airbus Helicopters has developed a crash resistant fuel system which brings the safety level for transported passengers to the latest standards."
When asked to elaborate on what, if any, CRFS was installed in the helicopter that crashed in Frisco, a spokesperson for Airbus said, "Under the circumstances, we feel it is inappropriate, and perhaps even impermissible, to discuss issues that may be related to the investigation."
"CERTAIN HELICOPTER CRASHES ARE SURVIVABLE"
There have been issues related to the CRFS question in other helicopters as well.
In 2014, for example, a Bell 206L1+ EMS helicopter crashed while on approach to a hospital helipad in Wichita Falls, Texas. Two people, a flight nurse and a paramedic, died from their injuries, which "included thermal injuries," according to a NTSB report.
"The helicopter was manufactured in 1981 and did not have a crash-resistant fuel system," reported the NTSB. "The circumstances of the accident illustrate that the impact forces alone during certain helicopter accidents are survivable if a post-crash fire can be prevented or its severity reduced."
Former NTSB investigator Greg Feith said all civilian helicopters can be vulnerable to post-crash fires simply because of the location of the fuel tanks.
"Because of the positioning of the tanks – being above the occupiable space – when the aircraft hits the ground the tank can breach, and all that fuel pools in the lowest area," Feith said.
A report done by our partners at USA Today in 2014 showed at least 79 people have died from post-crash fires following low-impact crashes since 1992.
On Friday, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart wrote the head of the FAA asking the FAA to consider requiring helicopter manufacturers to install crash resistant fuel systems on all helicopters built from now on.
"The NTSB is vitally interested in this recommendation because it is designed to prevent accidents and save lives," wrote Hart.
He said the NTSB has investigated 135 post-crash fires in helicopters between 1994 and 2013. Only three of those crashes involved helicopters that had been equipped with a CRFS.
EDITORS NOTE: KUSA-TV/9News currently leases an AS-350 helicopter in its daily newsgathering operations. The company that owns and operates Sky 9 says the fuel system employed in the AS-350 is similar to the fuel system used in the Airbus/Eurocopter AS-350 fleet.
(© 2015 KUSA)