Helicopters can escape their niche

Safety has been – and still is – a problem for helicopters.

It may be the roles they perform as much as their inherent instability and mechanical complexity, but those factors are beginning to sound like excuses for not changing anything.

Actually, helicopters don’t have to continue to be the poor relations of fixed-wing aircraft, with safety worries consigning them to niche applications. Because significant safety performance improvement is definitely achievable.

That much is clear from the impressive quantity and quality of work done on rotary-wing safety data analysis by the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) between the previous International Helicopter Safety Symposium in 2007 and the one I attended in Montreal last week.

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The IHSS, 28 Sept – 1 October 2009, the final afternoon

Under the IHST programme, set up in 2005, painstaking study and analysis intended to establish the patterns of circumstances behind thousands of helicopter accidents, has been carried out in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe (coordinated by EASA), India, New Zealand, South Africa, UK, USA and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is fascinating – although not altogether surprising – to discover, using hard data unsullied by preconceptions, that patterns repeat all over the world. Helicopters crash for the same reasons everywhere. Pilots make the same mistakes or misjudgements, and even the league tables prioritising the factors behind accidents echo each other almost perfectly in countries on opposite sides of the planet.

The facts and wisdom in one accident report normally have little effect on the way the world aviates. But distilled wisdom from thousands of them has real power.

It may be coincidence that global helicopter safety has begun to improve since 2005 for the first time in a generation, because it was not until 2007 that active measures began to emanate from the IHST’s findings. But maybe it is connected, just by the fact that the work that the IHST began four years ago created awareness of what could be achieved, and perhaps it sowed the early seeds of a new determination to improve.

This potential energy, however, has to be channelled and harnessed effectively, and that is what regional Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Teams all over the world, under the IHST, are poised to do.

If there are any in the helicopter industry – from manufacturers to operators – who think they need take no part in this, they should think again. World safety standards and people’s expectations are rising inexorably, but until the IHST came along in 2005 the rotary-wing industry’s safety record had stagnated nearly 30 years ago. Unless helicopter safety improves, rotorcraft travel will not reach its real potential. It will remain a niche activity, shunned wherever there is an alternative.

Those who use helicopter services have power. For example hospitals that contract for helicopter emergency medical services have a duty to specify the operational standards, capability and equipment they expect and not to settle for less, as do companies that hire helicopters for business travel. Oil companies like Exxon, for example, now specify that any offshore oil support operator they contract must operate a safety management system.

Finally, operators large and small will find, if they examine the free toolkits available from the IHST, that the processes involved in becoming safer – scaled according to the size of the company – are relatively easy to apply.

They are also good for business and the bottom line; unlike continuing to be a relatively high risk organisation in the eyes of potential customers, insurers, and regulators.