As part of a persistent movement to improve rotorcraft safety, particularly in US HEMS operations, three rotor safety advocates have become known as the Frisco Three – Karen Mahany, former Flight for Life (FoL) Flight Nurse and widow of the late Ret. US Army Pilot Patrick Mahany, FoL Flight Nurse Dave Repsher, and his wife Amanda Repsher.
The Frisco Three has also been supported by aviation medical leaders including Dennis Shanahan MD, a retired US Army Master Flight Surgeon, pilot, and former Commander of the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. Shanahan has devoted the last 25 years to fostering change within the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to improve the civilian rotor safety industry based on his invaluable military experience.
Despite their extensive efforts, the question remains whether there is sufficient momentum within the FAA to transform recommendations into actual mandates, close loopholes relating to when a helicopter was certified versus when it was manufactured, and how safety mandates apply differently in these circumstances.
The stalling of legislative proposals
Beginning in 2016, Shanahan served as Chair of the Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group (ROPWG) and led the collaborative work of drafting the legislative proposal to address necessary changes in the rotor industry with respect to an analysis of the US rotorcraft occupant protection issues. However, the FAA did not respond to the proposal.
This lack of response galvanized the Frisco Three. With Shanahan’s guidance, they traveled throughout the US, speaking at aviation conferences, addressing Congress including at the historical 20-month National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing, and Capitol Hill where the US Congress and the House of Representatives led the progress towards rotor safety. This culminated in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which began their fight to improve rotor safety; notably the rotor safety equipment Karen refers to as ‘the big three’ which, she said, ‘could have saved my husband’s life’. These are:
- The structure of the aircraft should promote survivability
- The seating and restraint system should promote survivability (attenuating seats)
- The fuel tank should minimize the chance of a post-crash fire, giving occupants time to egress from the crash, such as having a crash-resistant fuel system (CRFS) installed
The big question is: when is the FAA planning to turn recommendations into mandates with full-circle accountability?
Rotor rating and tax credits
In the past three years since the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, two additional documents have been produced. One is a tax credit proposal generated by the Frisco Three and the other a voluntary rating concept white paper produced by the FAA.
In its December 2020 White Paper, Rotorcraft Safety Promotion Concept for Design and Equipment, the Administration addresses the July 2015 crash, stating: “The Airbus in the accident met the minimum level of safety required based on the date of the design’s original certification, which also stated there was a significant likelihood that the fatality and serious injuries from the accident would have been avoided if certain features of the helicopter’s design and equipment were at a higher level of safety.”
As a result of the manufactured vs certification ‘loopholes’, only 10 per cent of the US civilian fleet is equipped with crashworthy structural design, energy-absorbing passenger seat systems
In the Helicopter Investment Safety Tax Credit Proposal (further details to be covered in part 2 featured in the next issue of AirMed&Rescue), the issue is with respect to the loopholes in the 1989 and 1994 standards. The proposal states: “Although most helicopters in circulation were manufactured after 1994, most were certified either before 1989 or 1994. As a result of the manufactured vs certification ‘loopholes’, only 10 per cent of the US civilian fleet is equipped with crashworthy structural design, energy-absorbing passenger seat systems, and only a slightly better 15 per cent have CRFS. There have been over 1,300 helicopter occupant deaths in non-compliant helicopters since the standards were published in 1989. Of those deaths, 73 per cent were due to blunt force trauma and 27 per cent from post-crash fires.”
According to the NTSB, many deaths could have been avoided had the aircraft simply been equipped with the Part 27 and 29 safety standards, and estimates that upwards of 125 lives may have been spared from 1991 to 2010 had these and other reforms been implemented. The tax credit proposal further states that: “Existing technologies like terrain awareness warning systems and flight data monitors have proven very successful tools in preventing crashes, and are lightweight and relatively inexpensive; they are not mandated as standard equipment on every helicopter.”
Mandate versus voluntary
When asked why the FAA choose the route of stating ‘voluntary’ compliance, as opposed to taking a stronger stand in the form of mandates, the FAA responded: “The FAA uses a combination of rulemaking, orders, directives, and voluntary compliance in order to increase safety. Each avenue has its own benefits depending on the speed, broadness, narrowness and innovation needed for the issue at hand.”
The NTSB concluded that the impact forces of the Frisco accident were survivable for the helicopter occupants. Just 20 days after the accident, the NTSB stepped up as national leaders when Administrator Christopher Hart JD addressed a list of rotor industry accidents and incidents in a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (2013-18). In the 20 years after the newly certified helicopter requirements set forth by the FAA in 1994, 85 per cent of US helicopters did not have CRFS. From 1994 to 2013, the NTSB investigated 135 accidents resulting in post-crash fires with 221 fatalities, 37 serious injuries, and only three of the helicopters retrofitted with a CRFS. Karen said: “The FAA changed one word and that one word changed everything, which ended up causing the death of my husband. Instead of the regulations applying to helicopters manufactured after a certain date, they applied only to helicopters certified after that date.”
Karen said the helicopter Patrick was flying was manufactured in 2013 and originally certified in 1977. However, the 1977 regulations dated back to 1960 when CRFS were not required, and helicopter seats were only required to protect occupants up to forwards and downwards 4g. The one-word difference is significant, once again, in the FAA’s wording with respect to the new ‘voluntary’ rotor rating concept, as opposed to mandating legislation with occupant protection measures. In addition to the white paper, the FAA created a one-page Toolkit (after the passing of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018) charting the helicopters that require a CRFS according to certification and manufacturing dates. According to the FAA: “The general public will be able to see what is and is not affected by the new occupant safety legislation.”
We have been told, time and time again, ‘Please keep speaking. You are making a difference in the industry’.
Balancing regulation, incentive, and consumer demand
The Frisco Three have spent several years compiling the data to introduce a new concept to the US rotor industry – an investment tax credit, to incentivize operators and manufacturers to implement the ‘big three’ safety equipment in all US helicopters while receiving the financial benefits of tax credits. The initial concept of the proposed Helicopter Safety Investment Tax Credit of 2021 was built on the ‘three-legged stool’ model presented by the Frisco Three at the FAA’s 2020 International Rotorcraft Safety Conference. Amanda described the model as:
- consumer demand
“The industry can effectively use the rotorcraft safety rating concept as a voluntary means to strengthen the incentive and consumer demand of the three-legged stool,” Amanda said. “Through this strengthening, the industry can sustain reductions in US rotorcraft fatal accidents/fatalities.” Amanda also emphasized the support of many working group and aviation medical professionals in associations: “We have been told, time and time again, ‘Please keep speaking. You are making a difference in the industry’.”
Proposed Helicopter Safety Investment Tax Credit of 2021
The purpose of implementing the proposed Helicopter Safety Investment Tax Credit of 2021 is to incentivize helicopter owners, operators, and leasors to equip existing and new aircraft with known safety equipment needed to prevent and protect their flight crews and occupants in the event of a crash. The proposal stated the objectives, within four years of enactment, as:
- Legislate the closure of the 1989 loophole, ensuring that all newly manufactured helicopters will comply with crashworthy seating and structure regardless of its certification date and mandate retrofits for the existing fleet [14 CFR 27.562, 27.785, 29.785, 14 CFR 27.561 and 29.561].
- Legislate that all legacy helicopters manufactured prior to April 5 2021 that do not meet the requirements of 1994 are to be retrofitted with a crashworthy fuel system [14 CFR 27.952 and 29.952].
The Frisco Three aim to implement outside-the-box ideas while emerging as the go-to people, partnering alongside the FAA to ensure accountability. Karen said: “Our plan of incentivization through tax credits will be on the table, will be part of the discussions, and will be the catalyst used to determine major decisions about keeping humans safe, all people, the crews, the passengers and all of the millions of people on the ground.”
To qualify for the tax credit, new aircraft would qualify by including all of the following:
- Seat systems compliant with FAA Regulations 14 CFR 27.562, 27.785, 29.785
- Aircraft structural requirements compliant with FAA Regulations 14 CFR 27.561 and 29.561
- Fuel systems that reduce likelihood of post-crash fires compliant with FAA Regulations 14 CFR 27.952 and 29.952
- Crash/fire resistant FDM onboard aircraft
- TAWS onboard aircraft
- Automatic Flight Control Systems (AFCS)
- Bird strike prevention/mitigation
Dave stated that the progressive tax credit of 30 per cent would be available for the first two years after this legislation’s enactment, 20 per cent for the following two years, and 15 per cent for the last two years for new, properly equipped helicopters and retrofit costs of existing aircraft. He continued: “In order to qualify for this tax credit, if the purpose of the newly purchased helicopter is to replace an existing non-compliant model, the owner, operator, lessor must agree to remove the older model from use and circulation, both domestically and internationally.”
In addition to the above-referenced 2-7, existing aircraft would qualify for retrofitting cost of the following: Seat and Structure Systems compliant with FAA Regulations 14 CFR 27.562, 27.785 and 29.785. “The credits shall be deemed “specified” and available against the alternative minimum tax [ATM],” said Dave. “The tax credits shall not reduce the tax basis of the investor (no basis reduction). Qualification for the credit shall expire six years from the date of enactment.”