Helicopter safety appears to be responding to treatment

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After more than 20 years of stagnation, global helicopter safety performance is showing signs of improvement.

Figures released at the third International Helicopter Safety Symposium in Montreal, Canada on 29 September show a slow but steadily improving trend since 2005, the year in which the rotary-wing industry set up the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) with the aim of reducing helicopter accident rates globally by 80% by 2016.

These are the findings of the International Helicopter Safety Team. At the same time the IHST has launched a series of safety "toolkits" to help operators around the world implement their own improvements to safety management, risk management and training.

Related blog: LEARMOUNT - Helicopters can escape their niche 

The figures show that helicopter accidents averaged 9.4 per 100,000 flying hours in the years 2000 to 2005, but since then they have gradually reduced to 6.2 in 2008 and could be lower this year.

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This measurable safety performance improvement is significant because, before 2005, helicopter accident rates had been stagnant for 20 years while safety had advanced considerably in all sectors of the fixed-wing world, particularly airlines. The airline safety improvement was credited to worldwide action begun under the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, on which the IHST has based its data-driven methodology.

Bell Helicopter Textron chief of safety Roy Fox provided figures showing gentle improvements in helicopter safety in all world regions, but with progress slowest in Australasia/Oceania. It is difficult at this early stage to be certain there is a relationship between the safety performance improvements and the IHST programme, because its early safety analyses and resulting safety policy initiatives began to come on line from 2007.

The conclusion is that any connection would probably spring from the team's success in generating increased international awareness of the need for safety improvement in the rotary-wing industry.

Meanwhile, the US Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT) has made 20 recommendations for improving helicopter safety performance in the USA, based on detailed research into US helicopter accident reports for the years 2000 and 2001.

Beyond the prime requirement for all operators to implement a safety management system, the top recommendation is for the development and installation of low-cost flight-data monitoring systems in helicopters.

Co-chairman of the US Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team (JHSIT), Sikorsky Aircraft's Fred Brisbois, says: "It's time for the industry to recognize its maturity and formalise its safety and training. The theme of the JHSIT products begins with the implementation of a safety management system. Along with that, the use of flight-data monitoring has come of age and is viable for helicopter operators. Through monitoring, you will see flaws in standardisation, operational procedures, and training. You can now use the 'just culture' and, if needed, appropriate, identifiable training to improve your overall operation."

Now Eurocopter, working with US-based Appareo Systems, has announced it is launching a miniature helicopter flight-data monitoring system that includes video recordings of the instrument panel in flight and contains a microphone to record voice and ambient sound.

It will be incorporated as standard equipment in all AS350 helicopters for the North American market from January 2010, and later in others.

The US JHSAT's analysis of 2000-1 accidents represents the early results of continuing work which will eventually bring helicopter accident statistical analysis up to date. But preliminary JHSAT assessments of 2006 accidents already show that the patterns of accident types, causation and operational category tend to repeat themselves every year, and this has been confirmed in the results of the European Helicopter Safety Team's study of accidents between 2000 and 2005, which closely mirrored the US findings.

Many of the recommendations in the US JHSAT report expand the detail in the team's core objectives, which include:

  • Develop and install helicopter flight-data monitoring equipment to record the actions of the flightcrew. Data can be used as immediate feedback to trainers, operators, and flightcrews, and to improve the effectiveness of investigations.
  • Helicopter accident investigations need to provide more information on the human aspects of the accident and assess the extent of operator oversight.
  • Improve primary and recurrent autorotation training.
  • Develop and establish a programme that gives operators and independent pilots a usable tool to evaluate hazards and associated risks of the flight and pilots' fitness for flight
  • Ensure that maintainers and operators are aware of the importance of following the manufacturers' maintenance manuals and practices, and that they oversee maintenance appropriately. Regulators should enforce this.
  • Develop and use simulators that can train pilots in advanced manoeuvres, such as autorotations, dynamic rollovers, emergency procedures, loss of tail rotor effectiveness, systems faults and operating limitations.
  • Require certificated flight instructors to participate and show proficiency in aeronautical decision making training programmes and knowledge of typical student errors.
  • Require more pilot training and assessment in power/energy management.
  • Establish training programmes that train and evaluate proficiency of critical issues such as systems failures, impending weather concerns, effects of density altitude, and wind and surface conditions that can become critical to safe fight.
  • Encourage operators to implement a risk management strategy.
  • Develop a list of typical helicopter pilot errors, and increase awareness of them during initial and recurrent training.

Related blog: LEARMOUNT - Helicopters can escape their niche