No greater love: A fight for helicopter crash safety

Editor’s Note: On July 3, 2015, Air Methods pilot Patrick Mahany, Jr. was killed when the Flight For Life Airbus Helicopters H125 he was piloting crashed shortly after lifting off from the Summit Medical Center Heliport in Frisco, Colorado. In its report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — which attributed the crash to the design of the aircraft’s dual hydraulic system — determined that the impact forces were survivable. However, the recently manufactured aircraft was not required to comply with dynamic crashworthiness standards adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1989, or with fuel system crash resistance standards adopted in 1994, and was destroyed in a post-crash fire.

Mahany sustained numerous blunt force trauma injuries as well as significant thermal lung injuries from the post-crash fire, which according to the NTSB directly contributed to his death. Meanwhile, flight nurse Matthew Bowe sustained a permanent sacral spinal cord injury, and flight nurse David Repsher received burns over 90 percent of his body; both will face lifelong medical complications.

Mahany’s wife, Karen, was at Patrick’s side when he died in the hospital a short time after the crash. This is her story.

 

Originally, I wasn’t supposed to have the day off. But the day before, my boss made a change to my schedule, so I was there, just minutes away, when the crash happened.

I got the phone call and raced to the hospital. Patrick had been rescued from the aircraft and was already in the emergency department. He had a breathing tube in when I rushed to his side, and the emergency department staff and doctors were starting chest compressions because they had lost a pulse.

I said into his ear that I was there and I begged him to come back to me. And within minutes, they had gotten a pulse back. And so I knelt down next to his bed and started whispering in his ear: thanking him for loving me, thanking him for choosing me, thanking him for being the most amazing husband, father, pilot, and person that I had ever met. I continued to talk to him, to touch his head, and to let him know that I was there. However, as the minutes went by, his pulse got weaker, and then they started to do chest compressions again.

When they finally held compressions, he had flat-lined and he was gone. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, to be there with the love of my life as he walked into heaven.

Patrick Mahany was a decorated Vietnam veteran and among the first civilian helicopter air ambulance pilots in the U.S. As his union, PHPA International, recalled, "He genuinely cared and wanted to make an improvement to the safety and working conditions of our pilots and crews" - a legacy now being honored by his widow, Karen. Photo courtesy of Karen Mahany
Patrick Mahany was a decorated Vietnam veteran and among the first civilian helicopter air ambulance pilots in the U.S. As his union, PHPA International, recalled, “He genuinely cared and wanted to make an improvement to the safety and working conditions of our pilots and crews” – a legacy now being honored by his widow, Karen. Howard Paul Photo
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Shortly after, I was handed all of his belongings, including his wallet. Inside his wallet was a piece of paper. Now, I know husbands think that wives know everything that’s inside their wallets, but really we don’t. I didn’t know this piece of paper was in there. It was tattered; it had obviously been in his wallet for some time. It read: “No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for another.” It was from the Bible, John 15:13.

He should have survived

“Mrs. Mahany, you know this was a survivable crash, right?” said the NTSB investigator. “This would have been survivable if your husband’s aircraft had had the safety equipment onboard that it should have had.”

This was said to me several months after Patrick’s crash in what is known as the “72-hour widow interview.” The NTSB wanted to find out as much as they could about the 72 hours before the accident to understand Patrick’s state of mind, and they wanted to talk to the person who knew him best, his widow: me.

I had known this interview was coming. Years before, Patrick and I had been talking about another crash that had happened. Looking off into the distance, Patrick had said, “First they take your life, then they take your legacy.” Then he looked me square in the eye, and he said, “If anything ever happens, Honey, you’ll be the only one to protect me. You’ll be the only one who can speak for me. You understand that, right? Please don’t let them destroy my legacy.”

Going into this interview, I had known that this would be one of the more important things that I would do for Patrick: letting them know the person he was, the pilot he was. But little did I know that what they would say to me would send me into a tailspin.

Having them tell me that Patrick should have survived made me rethink everything that had happened. What did they mean, “He wasn’t provided the safety equipment that he should have had?” This sent me into a flurry of reading and trying to understand, and, most importantly, reaching out to one of the world’s leading experts on helicopter crashworthiness, Dr. Dennis Shanahan.

I spoke on the phone to Dr. Shanahan, who is a retired U.S. Army flight surgeon and former commander of the Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. Early in his career, he was tasked with helping to make the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter the gold standard in rotorcraft survivability. When he retired and went into the civilian world, he started looking at civilian aircraft and how to improve their survivability.

Dr. Shanahan helped me understand how in 1989 and 1994, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with the best of intentions, passed regulations meant to improve protections for helicopter occupants in the event of a crash. I call these things the “big three”: first, the structure of the aircraft should promote survivability; second, the seating and restraint system should promote survivability; and third, the fuel tank should minimize the chance of a post-crash fire, giving occupants time to get away from the crash.

This is all well and good, except the lobbyists got the FAA to change one word; one word that changed everything, and 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.

To put this into perspective, my husband’s helicopter was manufactured in 2013 and crashed in 2015. It was almost a brand-new aircraft, but the design had originally been certified back in 1977. And so it was given a pass, a loophole, not to comply with the “big three” standards for occupant protection. The regulations that applied to it dated back to the 1960s, when crash-resistant fuel systems were not required and helicopter seats were only required to protect occupants up to 4 g.

These days, a Subaru car in a 30-mile-per-hour crash will protect its occupants from forces up to 30 g. Lightweight Indy Cars incorporate safety features that have allowed drivers to walk away after 100-g-force crashes. When helicopter manufacturers say that better crash safety features would make their aircraft too heavy, they’re not being truthful. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s that they haven’t had to do it. They haven’t put the research into making their aircraft safer.

Patrick was a Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service. He flew Hughes OH-6 Scout helicopters, which were built like a small cage. He was shot down three times in 1971-72, and was uninjured in all three crashes. But in 2015, in an almost brand-new aircraft, a fall from less than 100 feet killed him.

Honoring Patrick’s Legacy

In May 2016, I was getting ready to go to Washington, D.C., because Patrick was going to be inducted into the National EMS Memorial. In talking with Air Methods, Patrick’s employer, I told them that I really wanted to talk to members of Congress. Somebody needed to do something to improve helicopter crash safety, and the aircraft manufacturers weren’t going to do it on their own.

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Air Methods helped me arrange multiple meetings with different members of Congress, in both the Senate and the House. I met with Illinois Representative, now Senator Tammy Duckworth, a former U.S. Army Black Hawk pilot. I met with members of the Colorado delegation, including Representative Ed Perlmutter, and I also met with Arizona Senator John McCain. Originally, I was only supposed to have a photo op with Senator McCain, but he had his staff look up Patrick, and when they saw that he was a helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran they gave me a meeting.

In that meeting with Senator McCain I told him what had happened, and he looked me right in the eye and he said, “This has to change. We’re going to do something. You go home, you go back to Colorado. You meet with the Colorado delegation. You make a list of what needs to happen. You work with the Colorado delegation, and we will push this through. We will make the aircraft safer for the crews because it’s the right thing to do.”

And so, since leaving D.C., that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve opted not to litigate because that would eliminate my ability to talk in public, to talk to members of Congress, to voice my outrage that helicopter crews and passengers continue to die and nothing is being done about it.

Now the FAA has developed a working group to look into the regulatory loopholes, and they have found that even a partial retrofit of a crash-resistant fuel system eliminates almost 100 percent of post-crash fires.

In the meantime, Colorado Representatives Perlmutter and Jared Polis have introduced the Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act, which would require all new helicopters to have a crash-resistant fuel system. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner has added an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act that would require the FAA to expeditiously certify crash-resistant fuel system retrofit kits and notify helicopter owners about their availability.

Addressing the fuel system issue is just the start. It’s a great start, but we need to continue to push. More than 80 percent of people who die in what should have been survivable helicopter crashes die from blunt force trauma. (Blunt force trauma was the primary cause of Patrick’s death.) We need to fix all of the “big three” problems: the structure, the seating, and the fuel systems. Human error happens, and crashes happen, but when they do, we can at the very least give crews and passengers the chance to survive and go home to their families.

Patrick’s legacy was one of safety. He was always willing to stand alone, arms crossed, and say, “It’s not the safe thing, it’s not the right thing, it’s not what we should do.” I knew that Patrick loved his crew just as much as family. When he asked me to protect his legacy, that’s what he tasked me with, to protect the crews. “No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for another.”

And so I ask you, what are you willing to do for your crews? Are you willing to call your Congressman? Are you willing to stand up and say, “Not one more crew, not one more death in what should have been a survivable crash?” I look forward to your help and assistance in moving this effort forward.

To reach out to Karen and be updated on legislative progress, email her at [email protected]

One thought on “No greater love: A fight for helicopter crash safety

  1. The industry has gotten too large. There is a race to the bottom to fly a small cheaply as you can so you can make a profit with less flights. The FAA needs to step in and clean house. The standards for HAA aircraft needs to be much higher. Personally I don’t believe single engine aircraft should be allowed in the HAA business. The herd needs to be thinned by demanding better equipment. Not only twin engines but all aircraft should have autopilots. And NVGs. Companies will buy the cheapest aircraft they can and plop it down and start flying. The company that buys better equipment can’t compete since reimbursing isn’t based on type aircraft flown. This creates a race to the bottom.

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