Papillon Airways Helicopter Crash in the Grand Canyon on February 10, 2018

Papillon Airways EC-130

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the deadly crash of a Papillon Airways Eurocopter EC-130 sight-seeing helicopter at the Grand Canyon. The investigation will focus on the pilot’s actions, the flight conditions, including winds, and the NTSB will closely examine the helicopter’s fuel system. The helicopter’s manufacturer did not design the helicopter with a crash-resistant fuel system and it is unclear whether the operator had installed an FAA-approved "retrofit kit" to incorporate a safe crash-resistant fuel system. The crashworthiness of the helicopter’s fuel system will be central to the investigation because the crash was survivable and it is important to the investigation to determine why three passengers died and whether the deaths and the burn injuries of the survivors could have been avoided. Kreindler is investigating the crash because it raises significant safety issues that are connected to the firm’s prior cases that involved issues related to helicopter fuel system design and the flight operations of Papillon Airways. Kreindler has handled many cases that focused on helicopter fuel system design and recently successfully concluded a litigation that focused on the safety of a helicopter fuel system after two lives were lost in due to a post-crash fire.

Six passengers and a pilot were on board the Papillon Airways, Inc. Eurocopter EC-130 helicopter on Saturday, February 10th when it crashed in the Grand Canyon. All six passengers were British, hailing from Worthing, West Sussex. The crash took the lives of brothers Jason and Stuart Hill, ages 32 and 30, respectively, and Stuart’s girlfriend Becky Dobson, age 27. Passengers Ellie Milward, 29, Jonathan Udall, 32, and Jennifer Berham, 39, survived, as did the pilot, Scott Booth, 42. According to news reports, the passengers had booked the trip to the United States to celebrate Mr. Hill’s 30th birthday.

Kreindler was honored to represent the families of three victims from the last fatal Papillon helicopter crash, which occurred on August 10, 2001. Kreindler’s extensive investigation into the accident and Papillon’s operations, along with its subsequent litigation against Papillon and the helicopter’s manufacturer, uncovered a wealth of information that may prove very relevant to the February 10 tragedy.

Kreindler’s investigation involved obtaining company documents and taking the deposition of company officers under oath. The litigation lead to successful recoveries for all of Kreindler’s clients.

In that accident, another Papillon helicopter crashed while on a Grand Canyon tour. There was a post-crash fire in the 2001 crash similar to the February 10 tragedy. https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/AAB0402.aspx. The pilot and five passengers were killed and the sole survivor received severe burn injuries. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/12/nyregion/5-from-a-brooklyn-family-die-in-a-helicopter-crash.html. The helicopter involved was a Eurocopter AS350, similar to the helicopter involved in Saturday’s crash. The NTSB investigated the 2001 crash and concluded that it had been caused by pilot error. The investigation revealed that the pilot decided to fly the helicopter in an unsafe manner, which lead to a high rate of descent from which recovery was impossible.

The investigation into the 2001 crash revealed some unsettling behavior by the pilot on prior sightseeing flights. One former passenger told investigators that the pilot spent much of the tour talking and would turn his head toward the back of the helicopter to talk to passengers even as they flew toward a cliff. The passengers in the back would point out the approaching cliff, but the pilot would pretend not to notice – as if he were doing it on purpose. Later in the flight, the pilot pointed out to the passengers the location of the famous scene from the Thelma and Louise movie in which the characters drive a car off a cliff. He asked the passengers if they wanted to see what it was like to drive a car off a cliff, then flew the helicopter over the ground and rapidly down into the canyon.

Ultimately, The NTSB found that the pilot had lost control of the fully loaded helicopter while flying too close to dangerous terrain. The Board recommended that cockpit voice recorders be installed in commercially operated helicopters. We do not yet know whether Papillon has since added cockpit voice recorders to their fleet.

Papillon, also known by the name Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, claims to be the "world’s largest aerial sightseeing company," conducting more tours of the Grand Canyon than any other tour company, with a fleet of 48 aircraft and over 699 employees. There have been other crashes of Papillon sightseeing helicopters in addition to the 2001 accident that Kreindler successfully litigated.

NTSB Investigation

The NTSB has commenced an investigation into the latest Papillon crash. See NTSB Accident No. WPR18FA087. Stephen Stein is the NTSB Investigator-in-Charge. The NTSB has examined the wreckage at the crash site and it will be maintained at a facility in Phoenix, Arizona for further examination and testing.

The NTSB’s investigation is in its early stage and it has yet to issue a preliminary report, which it is expected to do shortly. The NTSB’s preliminary report will simply provide basic information regarding the accident, the operating company and the pilot. The NTSB’s full investigation will likely take longer than a year to complete. It will issue two further reports: a Factual Report, which provides the investigator’s factual findings, and a Probable Cause Report, which is the NTSB’s opinion on what caused the accident. The NTSB report may also make safety recommendations in an effort to improve the safety of tour helicopter operations and will hopefully recommend that the FAA require the retrofit of helicopters that continue to be used on commercial flights without crash-resistant fuel systems.

Crash-Resistant Fuel System?

The National Transportation Safety Board will examine the helicopter’s fuel system to determine whether it was sufficiently crash worthy. The NTSB must determine (1) the causes of the significant post-crash fire and (2) whether the helicopter’s fuel system failed to properly protect the helicopter’s occupants during the accident. In 2015, the NTSB has urged the FAA to require crash-resistant fuel system for all new helicopters. https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/safety-recs/recletters/A-15-012.pdf. Sadly, only a small percentage of U.S. registered helicopters have crash resistant fuel systems, which have been proven effective in reducing the risk of post-crash fires and burn injuries to occupants. There was a post-crash fire following the 2001 Papillon crash and tragically it may be that seventeen years late Papillon again took customers on a tour in a helicopter that lacked a crash-worthy fuel system.

Tour operations have presented significant safety concerns for many years, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to issue National Air Tour Safety Standards in 2007. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2007-02-13/pdf/07-580.pdf. Papillon provided comments to the proposed standards, arguing that that many were not justified.

The Kreindler investigation of the February 10th Papillon accident will include an examination of the helicopter’s design, including its fuel system, the pilot’s actions and the weather conditions, particularly the high winds that hampered rescue operations. In the firm’s prior Papillon case, we discovered that the pilot had operated the helicopter too aggressively and too close to the dangerous terrain given the helicopter’s available power, its operating weight and the density altitude.

British Law vs. U.S. Law

Under U.S. law, the British victims have the right to bring lawsuits in the U.S. against Papillon and other parties who may be responsible for the tragic crash. The defendants will seek to limit their liability by arguing that the damages should be assessed under British law, rather than U.S. law. In a recent case, Lewis v. Schweitzer Helicopter et al, Kreindler represented two UK families in US litigation arising out of a fatal helicopter crash in the UK. The case was concluded under very successful, but confidential, terms that applied U.S. law.

Related Past Kreindler Eurocopter Cases

In addition to its successful track record representing victims of tour helicopter cases, Kreindler & Kreindler has vast experience regarding Eurocopter helicopters. The firm has won many cases for victims of Eurocopter accidents, including:

Tate v. Eurocopter, et al., 98-cv-04237, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. Kreindler & Kreindler represented the family of a Colgate Palmolive Executive killed in a crash into New York's East River. Through our investigation, discovered a defect with the vertical fin of the helicopter (a BK 117), which was key to establishing liability. The case resulted in a record wrongful death recovery of almost $30 million.

Maillet v. Honeywell, Case No. NC0433283, Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles. Kreindler’s investigation of a Eurocopter AS350 crash uncovered a fuel control failure. Suit was filed in 2010, and we obtained a confidential recovery for our client.

Clarke v. USA, 11-cv-02339, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey. Kreindler represented the family of one of the victims of a mid-air collision that occurred when an Eurocopter AS350 helicopter was struck from behind by an airplane over the Hudson River (the "Hudson Mid-Air" case). Visibility, pilot awareness, and communication were central issues in that case.

Shepard v. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, 02-cv-0449, U.S. District Court, District of Hawaii. Kreindler represented a New Jersey family killed in a Eurocopter AS350 helicopter tour helicopter crash due to the pilot's loss of situational awareness in Hawaii. The case lead to a very significant recovery.

Grande v. Blue Hawaiian & Eurocopter, 08-cv-01188, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas. This case involved a Eurocopter EC130 crash, which Kreindler demonstrated had been caused by a fuel control malfunction.

Brown v. Eurocopter, 98-cv-0529, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas. A former Marine Corps pilot who flew Presidents Reagan and Bush was killed along with his oil industry passengers when the A-Star helicopter tail rotor part malfunctioned on a flight out to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to proving the case and obtaining a very substantial recovery for our client, Kreindler successfully petitioned the NTSB to change its probable cause report. The NTSB probable cause conclusion had wrongly found pilot error in the response to the tail rotor problem. Kreindler submitted evidence that it developed in the litigation that convinced the NTSB to reverse this conclusion, exonerate the pilot and issue a safety warning about the defect in the part fleet-wide.

In DeGruy v. Robinson Helicopter, Kreindler represented the family of a passenger who was killed in a post-crash fire in an Australian helicopter crash. The primary liability theory in the case was the failure of the helicopter manufacturer and the operator to incorporate known and available technology to prevent post-crash fires. The case resolved for a substantial confidential settlement under applicable U.S. law.