An initial report on the investigation of a sightseeing helicopter crash in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, that killed five people a year ago has shed some light on the deadly accident, but provided little comfort to family members seeking some closure.
On April 4, 2016, the helicopter, a Bell 206L operated by Great Smoky Mountain Helicopters, was flying a family on a routine tour of the area when it seemingly lost power, crashed in a field, and burst into flames.
The crash killed pilot Jason Dahl, 39; Johna Morvant, 49; her children Peyton and Parker Rasmussen, 22 and 18 respectively; and Peyton’s boyfriend Michael Mastalez, 21.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hasn’t yet determined what caused the crash but witnesses told investigators that the helicopter’s engines “didn’t sound right” and fell silent before the crash.
Autopsies revealed that all five occupants, however, were not killed by the impact but by a “flash fire” that erupted when the helicopter hit the ground.
Possible engine failure aside, another question lingers over the role of the 1977 helicopter’s fuel system, which was not made to resist crashes.
According to an investigation by WBIR 10News in Knoxville:
“… many helicopters have fuel systems that are only required to meet outdated safety standards because of a loophole in [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations. In 1994, the FAA began requiring crash-resistant systems — but if a model of helicopter was certified prior to that, it can still be produced without such safety measures. About 85 percent of new helicopters – thousands of aircraft – have been built without crashworthy fuel systems. That means the systems can rupture on impact, spilling fuel, and giving occupants less time to escape a post-crash fire.”
The FAA does not have plans to address the need for crash-resistant fuel tanks in helicopters, but a spokesperson for the agency told 10News that it formed a Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group “to take a fresh look at possible solutions that will give helicopter occupants the greatest possible chance of surviving an emergency landing or accident.”
In December, the group submitted an initial report to the FAA that included a cost-benefit analysis of crash-resistant fuel systems and crash resistant seats for new helicopters.
Three lawsuits have been filed by family members in connection with the crash.