A stagnant fatal accident rate combined with pressure from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Congress is forcing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take a hard look at its current regulations governing occupant safety and crashworthy fuel systems in rotorcraft. This ultimately could lead to regulation that includes mandated system retrofits.

From the FAA's viewpoint, the problem stems from regulatory changes made in 1989 that mandated crashworthy seating and 1994 that required crashworthy fuel systems in all new-production helicopters. However, helicopters that were granted type certificate approval or had their basis or type certificate approval granted before those dates were exempted — think Bell 206 or Eurocopter AS350 for examples.

As a result, just 10 percent of the current fleet meets the seating requirement, and only 16 percent meets it for the fuel system rules, according to the FAA. Federal regulators have decided to attack the fatal helicopter accident rate in large part by starting the ball rolling to revise these rules.

"Things looked like they were improving, but really if you take it out over a 20-year period we really have had no sustained improvement (in the fatal helicopter accident rate)," Lance Gant, head of the FAA Rotorcraft Directorate, said last month. "We see jumps and we see dips. We've seen a reduction in helicopter accidents but the fatal helicopter accident rate seems pretty stagnant. A study done by CAMI (the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute) found that 20 percent of fatal injuries were thermal and the rest from blunt force trauma. We feel we can have more of an impact but focusing on crashworthiness."

"We've had a lot of high-profile pressure on us to do something about post-crash fire," Gant said. "Even though it is not a major contributor to fatalities, there have been some horrific crashes that have been caught on video tape. There has been pressure on the administrator from not only the NTSB but from Congress to do something about it."

Gant said the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) asked the Rotorcraft Directorate to put together a work group to look at occupant protection. The group's first meeting was held in January.

"We're not only going to be looking at crashworthy fuel systems but what else we can be doing for occupant protection," he said. "We have an 18-month deadline. The first six months will be cost benefit analysis, then they'll look at the costs of incorporating changes on current production aircraft, and then in the last six months they will be looking at retrofit of existing fleet."

The FAA also is looking at the canopies of Part 27 helicopters and their ability to withstand bird strikes, recently forming another group to examine the problem.

"We have seen a lot of cockpit penetrations with birds over the last few years some of them very close to causing a tragic event," Gant said. "Just by fate and good luck some of these aircraft have been able to get down after penetration after the pilot was struck."