Helicopters need help

That headline may sound patronising, but it’s not intended to be.

Flying helicopters is difficult. The tasks they are asked to perform are those which no other transport mode could carry out. Helicopters are so expensive to operate they are only called out when nothing else can do the job.

The Morecambe Bay report is one of the first serious accident reports to be published since the International Helicopter Safety Seminar (IHSS) was held in Montreal in 2005, and it is certainly the first to recognise the significance of the strategies for the future of global helicopter safety that emerged from that seminal meeting.

The UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) report confirms that the IHSS’s offshoot, the Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT), got it right when it said that most helicopter accidents are caused by “pilot judgement and actions”, because this one certainly was. But thankfully the report doesn’t blame the pilots. It asks why helicopter pilots make the mistakes they do.

It’s simple, stoopid! Let’s revert to the first paragraph in this blog: “Flying helicopters is difficult. The tasks they are asked to perform are those which no other transport mode could carry out. They are so expensive to operate they are only called out when nothing else can do the job.”

And has the helicopter industry really looked at this issue, or just assumed that unsatisfactory global helicopter accident rates that have failed to improve even slightly over more than 20y were just an immutable law of nature? Well, that’s the way it has been until now.

That assumption remained unchallenged until the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), the JHSAT, and now the AAIB, came on board. Now the helicopter operating industry is being encouraged to change old attitudes.

The crewmen who died in Morecambe Bay were good pilots, but they hadn’t been comprehensively trained for their job. They had been trained according to existing regulations and existing practices by their employer, CHC, which is the world’s biggest helicopter operator and which has, by global industry standards, a superb safety record. But, although this crew could have been prepared on a flight simulator for the demands they faced that night, they had not been. It was not a requirement.

It’s the accepted practices, accepted cultures, and existing regulations about helicopter operations that need to be radically reviewed. Thankfully, the IHST, the JHSAT, and now the AAIB, are finally questioning them. 

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