Five people are dead, and two more are fighting for their life after a fiery helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon on February 10, 2018. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigations of the tragedy are in their early phases, but the company operating the helicopter tour, Papillon Airways, has already announced planned changes to their helicopter fleet. Sightseeing helicopter crashes are unfortunately all too common, putting the lives of tourists at risk.
The retrofitting plan may indicate the helicopter's equipment could be a factor in the crash's devastating consequences. Both Papillon Airways and Airbus, the manufacturer of the helicopter involved in February's crash, have been the subject of lawsuits in the past.
Papillon Airways most recently faced scrutiny following a similar crash in 2001 in which six people died, and one survivor was severely injured. The NTSB deemed the cause of that crash to be pilot error, but the tour company said they did not agree with the conclusion.
Papillon Airways Announces New Fuel System Retrofit
Just two weeks after a tragic and headline-grabbing fatal helicopter crash in Nevada's Grand Canyon, the company operating the tour announced its decision to retrofit the rest of its fleet of helicopters with new fuel systems that may fare better upon impact.
News of the impending change came via StandardAero, the company that will manufacture the 40 fuel systems that Papillon ordered. The new fuel tanks are designed to expand and bend upon impact where fuel tanks of the past were more prone to break. The StandardAero tanks also have self-sealing components to stop leaks. Both factors are intended to improve safety and survival likelihood in helicopter crashes by providing those on board with an opportunity to escape the aircraft and/or crash area without being burned or exposed to smoke.
.@StandardAero, Papillon Airways sign #MOU for 40 crash-resistant fuel tanks https://t.co/J9i6ZyRmOV #HeliExpo2018 pic.twitter.com/EM8EyjQbU7— Vertical Magazine (@verticalmag) February 26, 2018
The NTSB urged the widespread use of crash-resistant fuel systems for years, but so far regulations have been limited. The FAA requires the use of the new systems for helicopters that were certified after 1994, but the requirement leaves a loophole wherein revamped versions of older models can slide through with the old fuel systems. In 2015 the NTSB reported that only 15 percent or so of the helicopters across America met the crash-resistant fuel system requirement.
The new fuel tanks will be installed on Papillon's Airbus AS350 B3 and EC130 B4 helicopters starting in April. The company has not said whether the crash was a deciding factor in the purchase, though the helicopter that went down was an EC130 B4 that caught fire on impact. StandardAero also declined to say whether Papillon Airways had contacted them about the systems before the crash.
The StandardAero press release on the purchase of the crash-resistant fuel systems did, however, include a short statement from Papillon Airways.
"Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters has made the commitment to lead our industry by retrofitting our tour fleet with recently FAA certified crash resistant fuel systems," Lon Halvorson, who owns Papillon Airways and acts as its executive vice president, commented.
Preliminary NTSB Report Says Helicopter Burned After Crashing into Grand Canyon
A full NTSB report on the Grand Canyon helicopter crash could be more than a year out, but the investigatory team has released a preliminary report on the crash.
The report says that the EC130 B4's path indicates the pilot intended to land at a landing zone in Quartermaster Canyon at approximately 5:15 a.m. During the approach, the helicopter "began to slightly drift aft" and then made "at least two 360 degree left turn revolutions as it descended into the wash below." The report also says that there was a fire following the aircraft impacting the terrain.
NTSB officials have since moved the wreckage from the crash site, which was only accessible by helicopter or 20-mile hike, to an undisclosed location in Phoenix, Arizona, for further examination. A suspected cause of the crash is unlikely to be released until the full report is released.
The preliminary NTSB report makes it clear that the helicopter was burned after the crash, saying that "most of the wreckage was consumed by the post crash fire" and that the engine sustained fire damage, but no statements have been made as to what role the fire played in the high number of fatalities.
Autopsies conducted by the Mohave County Medical Examiner on the first three victims listed causes of death as "multiple injuries due to a helicopter crash," but gave no further details on to what extent, if any, burns and possible smoke inhalation were factors.
Witness describes seeing survivor walk out of flames of Grand Canyon chopper crash https://t.co/ozfHrZQxQi pic.twitter.com/Wm1tF6qNS8— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) February 12, 2018
Crash witnesses reported seeing the victims badly burned and told reporters the scene was "horrific."
Teddy Fujimoto was taking photographs nearby when the crash occurred and recounted the aftermath to KSNV.
"I saw these two ladies run out of [the wreckage], and then an explosion," Fujimoto said. "One of the survivors…looked all bloody. Her clothes probably were burnt off. The ladies were screaming…it was just horrible."
Fourth and Fifth Grand Canyon Helicopter Crash Victims Die, While Two Remain in Critical Condition
The two most recent fatalities from the crash were 31-year-old Jonathan Udall and 29-year-old Eleanor Udall, a newlywed couple from Britain who were honeymooning with friends in the United States.
Jonathan Udall succumbed to his injuries in an unidentified Las Vegas hospital on February 22, 2018, ten days after the crash. His wife, Eleanor, died four days later.
Fourth Briton dies after helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon https://t.co/wEudv3mVLe— The Independent (@Independent) February 23, 2018
"It is with great sadness that we have to announce the death of our daughter Eleanor Udall (nee Milward) as a result of the injuries she sustained in the Grand Canyon helicopter crash on 10 February 2018," Eleanor's family said in a statement.
Eleanor had been receiving treatment in the burn unit at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada since the crash and did not regain consciousness before passing away from her injuries.
Only one of the passengers from the Grand Canyon helicopter crash, 39-year-old Jennifer Barham, is still alive. She was listed in critical condition as of February 22, 2018. The helicopter's pilot, 42-year-old Scott Booth, is also in critical condition and has undergone at least one surgery, according to a GoFundMe page set up for his medical expenses. The page had raised more than $54,000 of its $50,000 goal as of February 28, 2018.
2001 Papillon Airways Crash Killed Six
In a previous helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon, a pilot and five passengers died during a Papillon Airways sightseeing flight on August 11, 2001. The aircraft, whose passengers were all members of a family from Brooklyn, was on its way back to Las Vegas when the crash occurred.
The NTSB could not find evidence of a mechanical malfunction with the AS350-B2 helicopter, and eventually ruled the cause of the crash to be the pilot’s decision to descend too quickly and too closely to a cliff face. Papillon Airways disagreed with the ruling, saying through a spokesperson, "Papillon has been a party to this accident investigation and our preliminary conclusions are not consistent with those of the NTSB."