Why I Spent $11,524 to Replace Perfectly Good Fuel Tanks on my R44 Helicopter

The short answer: Lawyers.

I’m not sure when the brouhaha began.

It might have been right after this crash, when a helicopter operating at or near gross weight at an off-airport landing zone in high density altitude situation by a sea level pilot crashed, killing all four on board and starting a forest fire that raged for two days.

Or it could have been earlier, after this crash, which I blogged about here, when a helicopter operating 131 pounds over the maximum gross weight for an out of ground effect hover by a brand new helicopter pilot low-level at an off road race crashed, severely injuring all three people on board.

I’m sure it was before this crash, when a 250-hour pilot landed to “relieve himself” at an off-airport landing zone with a density altitude of at least 11,000 feet, then panicked when he got a low rotor horn and aux fuel pump light at takeoff and botched up a run-on landing on unsuitable terrain, severely injuring himself and his wife.

These three cases have two things in common (other than pilots who did not exercise the best judgement): the helicopters were R44s and the crashes caused fires that injured or killed people.

Crash an Aircraft, Have a Fire

Of course, if you crash any kind of aircraft that has fuel on board hard enough into terrain, a fire is likely to result. Fuel is flammable. (Duh.) When a fuel tank ruptures, fuel spills. (Duh.) If there’s an ignition source, such as a spark or a hot engine component, that fuel is going to ignite. (Duh.)

I could spend the rest of the day citing NTSB reports where an airplane or helicopter crash resulted in a fire. But frankly, that would be a complete waste of my time because it happens pretty often.

Don’t believe me? Go to http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/index.aspx, scroll down to the Event Details area, and enter fire in the field labeled Enter your word string below. Then click Submit Query and check out the list. When I ran this search, I got more than 14,000 results, the most recent being a Cirrus SR22 that crashed on April 27, 2012 — less than 2 weeks ago.

The Knee Jerks

But Robinson reacted in typical knee-jerk fashion. After issuing a ridiculous Safety Notice SN-40, “Postcrash Fires,” that recommended that each helicopter occupant wear a “fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet,” they began redesigning components of the helicopter’s fuel system. First they redesigned the fuel hose clamps and issued Service Bulletin SB-67, titled “R44 II Fuel Hose Supports.” Then they redesigned the rigid fuel lines to replace them with flexible lines and issued Service Bulletin SB-68, titled “Rigid Fuel Line Replacement.” And then they redesigned the fuel tanks to include a rubber bladder and released Service Bulletin SB-78 (superseded by SB-78A), the dreaded “Bladder Fuel Tank Retrofit.”

Why “dreaded”? Primarily because of the cost of compliance, which was estimated between $10,000 and $14,000.

Originally released on December 20, 2010 (Merry Christmas from the folks at Robinson Helicopter!), Robinson did give us some breathing room. The time of compliance was set to “As soon as practical, but no later than 31 December 2014.” I did the math and realized that my helicopter would likely be timed out — in other words, back at the factory for overhaul — before then. But the February 21, 2012 revision moved the compliance date up to December 31, 2013. At the rate I was flying — about 200-250 hours per year — it looked as if I’d still be flying it when December 2013 rolled along.

Is it Required?

I talked to my FAA POI. He’s the guy that oversees my Part 135 operations. He’s a good guy: reasonable and easy to talk to. He doesn’t bother me and I try hard not to bother him. After all, he’s got bigger operators with bigger headaches to worry about.

We talked about the Service Bulletin. Neither of us were clear on whether the FAA would require compliance for my operation. After all, it was a Service Bulletin, not an Airworthiness Directive (AD), which is definitely required.

We left off the conversation with acknowledgement that I didn’t have to do anything at all for quite some time. We’d revisit it a little later.

Pond Scum

Around this time, I was contacted by a lawyer representing the family of the 250-hour pilot who crashed in the mountains because he had to “relieve himself.” This guy had seen my blog posts about my problems with my helicopter’s auxiliary fuel pump — perhaps this one or this one or possibly this one. Or maybe all three.

He was looking for an “expert witness” to provide information about the problems with the fuel pump. It was clear that he was trying to pin the blame for his clients’ injuries on the fuel pump manufacturer and Robinson Helicopter. Not on his client, of course, who had caused the accident by making a series of very stupid decisions. Apparently, Robinson is supposed to make idiot-proof helicopters.

I got angry about the whole thing — lawyers shifting the blame to people who don’t deserve it — and responded as you might expect. I also blogged about it here.

I didn’t make the connection between lawyers and bladder fuel tanks. I believed — and still believe — that it’s not unreasonable for post-crash fires to occur in the event of an aircraft accident. It’s part of the risk of being a pilot. Part of the risk of flying.

The Buzz and Insurance Concerns

Meanwhile, the Robinson owner community was buzzing with opinions about the damn bladder fuel tanks. Some folks suggested that they’d been developed as a means for Robinson to make money off owners in a time when helicopter sales were slow.

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think Robinson was just trying to protect itself from liability. By offering this option, it would be up to the helicopter owner to decide what to do. If the owner didn’t get the upgrade and had a post-crash fire, Robinson could step back and say, “The new fuel tanks might have prevented that. Why didn’t you get them? Don’t blame us.” And they’d be right.

And that got me thinking about my insurance. So I called my insurance agent, who was also a friend and helicopter pilot. The year before, he’d managed to come up with an excellent and affordable policy for R44 owners and I’d switched to that policy as soon as my existing policy ended. Would I be covered if I didn’t get the tanks installed right away? He told me that of course I’d be covered. The compliance date wasn’t until December 31, 2013.

Buy Now, Save Money?

I also talked to my mechanic. He told me that the tanks were on back order and it could take up to eight months to get them. I was also under the impression that the cost of the tanks was going to rise at the end of 2011. And that if I ordered the tanks, I wouldn’t have to pay for them until they arrived. I figured that once they arrived, I’d store them until I was ready to have them installed. Or maybe even hold onto them until overhaul.

So I ordered them in late December, right before the Robinson factory closed for the holiday break.

I’d been misinformed. I had to pay for them up front: $6,800. Merry Christmas.

And, oh yeah: the price didn’t go up, either.

A Horrifying Scenario

Time went by. I thought about the damn tanks on and off throughout the winter months. In February, during my occasional checking of accident reports, I saw this report about an R44 with a post-crash fire. It got me thinking about liability again.

And then I started thinking about lawyers, like that sleezebag who had contacted me. And my imagination put together this scenario:

My helicopter crashes and there’s a fire. One of my passengers is burned. Although my insurance covers it, the blood sucking legal council my passenger has hired decides to suck me dry. He claims that I knew the fuel tanks were available and that they could prevent a fire and that I neglected to install them. He puts the blame squarely on me. My insurance, which is limited to $2 million liability, runs out and the bastard proceeds to take away everything I own, ruining me financially forever.

Not a pretty picture.

Is this what Robinson intended? I’d like to think not. But I’m sure that as I type this, some lawyer in Louisiana is working on a case using the logic cited above. The pilot might be dead, but his next of kin won’t have much left when the lawyers are done with him.

I started thinking that I may as well install the damn tanks — just in case.

Dealing with Logistics

In late March the fuel tanks were delivered. It cost another $310 for shipping. The two boxes weren’t very heavy, but they were huge. I had them delivered directly to my mechanic.

And then I started thinking about logistics. I had originally expected the tanks to arrive during the summer while I was gone for my summer work in Washington state. I figured I’d have them installed at my next annual or 100-hour inspection near year-end. But here they were, waiting for installation any time I was ready.

But when would I be ready? My mechanic said it would take about 10 days (minimum) to install them. Because the tanks had to be fitted to the helicopter, it was a multistep process:

  1. Remove the old tanks.
  2. Put on the new tanks and fit them to the helicopter. (Metal work required.)
  3. Remove the new tanks.
  4. Paint the new tanks.
  5. Reinstall the new tanks.

Most of that time was taken up with getting the tanks painted and waiting for them to dry.

Logistics is a major part of my life. I’m constantly working out solutions for moving my helicopter and other equipment to handle the work I have. I’m also constantly trying to schedule any maintenance at a time when I’m least likely to need to fly. This spring was especially challenging: I had to get my truck, RV, and helicopter up to Washington before the end of May. I also had to go to Colorado to record a Lynda.com course before the end of May.

So on April 13, I flew the helicopter down to my mechanic in Chandler and asked my friend Don to pick me up (in his helicopter) and take me home to Wickenburg. Then, the same day, I started the 3-day drive in my truck with my RV to Washington. I arrived on April 15. A week later, on April 22, I took Alaska Air flights to Colorado, where I stayed for another 6 days. Then, on April 28, I flew directly back to Phoenix. Don picked me up at the Sky Harbor helipad and dropped me off at Chandler. All the work on the helicopter was done and it looked great. I flew the helicopter back to Wickenburg that morning. Two days later, on May 30, I picked up passengers in Scottsdale and began the 2-day flight to Washington. We arrived on May 1.

Item Cost
Fuel Tanks $6,800
Shipping $310
Tank Installation $3,960
Tank Painting $454
Total Cost $11,524

The installation and painting had cost another $3,960 and $454 respectively, bringing my total for installing the damn bladder fuel tanks to $11,524.

I Blame the Lawyers

So, yes, I spent $11,524 for tanks that might only benefit me in the event of a crash. No guarantees, of course.

I didn’t need the tanks. They didn’t make flight any safer or better. They only might make crashing safer.

And the only reason I did this is so that a lawyer couldn’t point his finger at me and blame me for ignoring a Service Bulletin that wasn’t wasn’t required by law until (maybe) December 31, 2013.

The only reason I did this was to possibly prevent a lawyer from taking away everything I own, everything I’ve worked hard for all my life, in the unlikely event that my helicopter crashed and a fire started.

Do you want to know why aviation is so expensive? Why it costs so much to fly with me? Ask the lawyers.

26 thoughts on “Why I Spent $11,524 to Replace Perfectly Good Fuel Tanks on my R44 Helicopter

  1. Maria,

    While I’ve not maintained a helicopter (not by any stretch of the imagination) I did spend a few years as crew chief for a hot air balloon. I know the level of security, the annuals, the maintenance that went into that ‘relatively simple’ aircraft. I don’t envy you the maintenance issues and respect your decision here. Still looking forward to flying with you someday soon. – Terry

      • he world has too many damn lawyers- that’s for sure! What gets me though, is that, if a part is detected to be deficient, well after the sale of the aircraft in this case, that the pwner is then the one on the hook for paying for it. Why isn’t Robinson helf liable for covering a part of the cost of this part?
        I fly Boeing 737’s. Many years ago a 747 departing JFK falls from the sky and it’s later determined that it was caused by fuel vapors igniting in the fuel tank. Now, years later, it is the owner of almost every Boeing aircraft who has to pay for the cost of a new, improved fuel tank which incorporates a nitrogen injecting machine? If the fuel tank had been built properly in the first place, there would be no need for a new, improved tank.
        I just don’t get it. I am sorry that you, Maria, and a lot more owner-operators are stuck because attention-grubbing attorneys want to make a name for themselves and end up costing incredible amounts of money. It infuriates me!

  2. There is a saying in the aviation industry… “The best way to make a small fortune in the aviation industry is to start with a large fortune.”.

    All joking aside, if it is any consultation, more of the aviation fatalities come from the post-crash fires, not the actual crash injuries. Hopefully you won’t have an event where you will be very happy you spent that money, & went to all of that trouble. In the meantime, maintain your autorotation skills, keep up your good judgement, & don’t let paying clients pressure you into lapses in judgement because they don’t understand the factors involved (a problem that some of my rotorwing friends have shared stories with me about).

  3. Your article includes lots of good analysis, but I believe your conclusion that it is more or less all because of the lawyers is a stretch. There are numerous reasons why flying is expensive, and the R44’s price and maintenance hinge on many variables. You indicate that you do not tolerate rudeness, but you refer to lawyers as bastards or pond scum. I feel your frustration where you believe a lawyer improperly seeks to shift blame where it does not belong. The lawyers should not win such cases, but sometimes the system does not work correctly, in the same sense that it is not possible to make an idiot-proof helicopter.

    • You might believe it’s a stretch, but it’s not. The ONLY reason I upgraded my tanks NOW instead of waiting it out was because of my fear of being a lawyer’s victim. I did my part regarding the tanks; I can’t be blamed by anyone for not taking advantage of what Robinson claims might make my helicopter safer in the event of a crash.

  4. Hello Maria,

    Although Bladder tanks may help to reduce the possibility of a post crash fire, they do not eliminate it. Do you know of any reports on just how effective the new tanks are at reducing post crash fires? I could check the NTSB reports but, if someone has already done that…

    I’ve wondered why Robinson did not issue a similar SB for the R22? As I recall, there have been many more post crash fires in that model than the R44.

    Will

    • I agree: there’s no evidence to prove that bladder tanks will prevent post-crash fires. I think I mentioned that in my post. It’s probably like an expensive Band Aid for the prevention of a broken arm that might occur when you fall off a roof.

      But will the lawyers agree? Remember, all these people care about is getting a judge or jury to believe that someone OTHER THAN THEIR CLIENT is at fault. If a lawyer can blame ME for a client’s injuries because I failed to install tanks that could have prevented a fire, he’s done his job. Why give him that option? The $11.5K I spent is for my own peace of mind.

  5. Interested in the insurance program for R44 helicopters. Is it also available for R22 and flight training coverage. Currently with Sutton-James, but always on the lookout for better coverage (particularly $2million liability; smooth coverage?) and less premium. Thanks

    • You need to contact Southwest Aviation Insurance. Talk to Dave Monaco and tell him I sent you. 800-324-6787

      I don’t know if they have policies for R22 helicopters, but I can’t see why not. All of the friends I’ve referred to him are R44 owners. We all switched to his policy as soon as our policies expired. I’m about to sign up for my second year with them. Very pleased with the coverage. The annual premium is among the lowest I’ve seen for commercial operations. Best of all, it covers ALL of my activities, including agricultural work AND moving cattle.

        • Thanks so much for saying that! I appreciate it.

          I sure do wish more folks would share their thoughts and info in the comments. You not only brought this to my attention, but by posting it as a comment here, you’ve also informed every other person who reads this post. That’s info we can all use. Thanks!

  6. To say that the only reason you got the retrofit now was because of scummy lawyers and exposure to liability is a falsehood. Nobody does anything for one reason alone. The beginning of the article is about post crash fires, and safety issues surrounding this. The military has required bladders in the R44 for many years, yet robinson has not put it in until 2010.

    There are several recent post crash fires where pilot error was not involved, and the machine should not have caught fire, yet it did. Not sure if you remember the Ford Pinto, but I am sure you do.

    Lawyers provide a service to clients. Those clients feel “wronged” somehow and want compensation. In the US that means money whci, I admit personally, is hard to swallow. People should not win the lottery when there is an accident.

    There are great lawyers out there and there are bad lawyers. There are bad claims and good ones. Our United States litigation system has made it more difficult and expensive for you to run your business. That is true, however, you cannot blame crappy lawyers for your extra added costs. You like other pilots dont want to die in a fire that could have been prevented.

    Personally, I think Robinson should be required to replace the tanks at no charge to owners because they knew these things were fire balls, and have done nothing before 2010.

    I am an Aviation Attorney, Aircraft Owner and Pilot, with high performance and complex ratings.

    I would love to hear your thoughts, and or open a dialogue.

    • You have a lot of fucking nerve calling me a liar on my own blog. I upgraded for exactly the reasons I claimed — to prevent some lawyer from calling me negligent because I didn’t get the upgrade timely enough. That $11K could save me from losing every single thing I own if I ever have a crash that results in a fire.

      I don’t fly around worried about accidents and potential fires. I fly around worried about some scumbag lawyer taking me for everything I’ve got in the event that one of my passengers gets hurt.

      What makes you think I want to start a dialogue with someone who starts out by calling me a liar? Get real and get lost.

  7. I have to agree with you Maria. There ARE too many lawyers in the world today and way too many who are ambulance chasers. You did what you had to to responsibly protect yourself and I applaud you. He does have one good point in his blog- why should you, as an owner/operator, be responsible for paying for a manufacturer’s defect?

    • Except I don’t see it as a manufacturers defect. You crash an aircraft with fuel on board, it’s likely to catch fire. I don’t expect the new tanks to reduce the chances of that happening very much, if at all. I guess we’ll know when the data starts coming in. I’m one of the first owners to make the change.

    • I actually got a phone call from someone surprisingly high up on the food chain there. Not surprisingly, he told me that he was calling instead of writing for the same reason Pat Cox didn’t want to write. “LA” isn’t just Los Angeles. The U.S. is the “Land of Attorneys.” We’re all living in fear of being sued by someone who doesn’t understand the inherent risks of the things they do and would rather place blame (and collect a judgement) than take responsibility for their own actions. If there’s any one thing that’s killing small business in this country, it’s probably the cost of insurance and fears of legal action. I can’t begin to list the ways it’s held me back from making my business grow.

  8. Maria: What do you believe would be a possible solution to this fear you identify and what changes do you feel are necessary so that you are no longer held back from making your business grow? I do agree, people should take responsibility for their own actions. But what standard should be applied for that situation where one party assumes responsibility for the safety of another party? What would be your initial steps in making the system better?

    • I’d like to see lawyers stop shifting the blame from their clients to others. I’d like to see an end to the ridiculously high monetary rewards paid out to lawyers and their clients when they successfully pin the blame on businesses that may have done everything in their power to stay safe.

      Accidents happen. Certain activities are risky. Want to eliminate risk? Don’t do risky things. But if you do them and get hurt, don’t shift the blame to others who don’t deserve it.

What do you think?