IN FOCUS: New regulations, recruitment help Niagara Helicopters avoid repeat of 1992 crash

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Sometimes you hate to be right. Between 1985 and 1992, Swiss-born helicopter pilot Rudolph Hafen - former president and chief pilot of Canada-based aerial touring company Niagara Helicopters - wrote annually to Transport Canada officials on the poorly regulated international airspace over Niagara Falls. No one answered. Tragedy struck in 1992, when a USA-based Rainbow Helicopters Hughes 500E came from below and behind to collide with Niagara Helicopters' i206 Jet Ranger.

The US pilot attempted a dive, and the Jet Ranger's main rotors severed the other's tail boom. The Jet Ranger made an emergency landing with heavy damage, but the US pilot and his three tourists plunged to their deaths.

Twelve days later, the airspace - with a radius of 4nm (7km) from the Niagara river's scenic whirlpool, just downstream from the cascades and designated CYR518 - reopened with a host of new regulations as US and Canadian officials quickly collaborated. Now, only three helicopter operators, including Niagara Helicopters and Rainbow Helicopters, have legal access to CYR518 below the 3,500ft (1,067m) minimum for all transient traffic. New regulations required mandatory altitude and distance separations and speed limit, as well as strict communication policies for all pilots entering the airspace.

EFFECTIVE REACTION

By Hafen's reckoning, Niagara Helicopters accounts for 95% of air traffic above the falls. Effective government regulations and a comprehensive approach to safety means the company has had no accident since 1992, despite being a five-aircraft outfit that flies nine-minute, 11km round trips topping out at 2,400ft for 100,000 passengers a year.

niagara falls helicopter, niagara helicopters

 © Niagara Helicopters

Hafen, a licensed helicopter pilot in Switzerland, Canada and the USA, arrived in Canada in 1981. He began flying with Pan Air Helicopters, a small training and touring outfit in Niagara Falls. In 1985, he bought Pan Air with two partners and rebranded it as Niagara Helicopters, with a sole focus on aerial tours. Hafen now has almost 40,000h of flight time. The Niagara Helicopters fleet comprises five brightly-painted, six-seat Bell 407s, at $3.3 million each, with modern hangar, helipad, and terminal building.

Hafen, who stood down as president in December after the company was sold to Luc Pilon, of Ottawa-based Helicopter Transport Services, is dismayed by the number of accidents that plague many US tour operators. Between 1982 and 2011, the US Federal Aviation Administration reports there were more than 400 accidents in the aerial tourism industry - most involving helicopters - with 360 fatalities. Recent high-profile incidents include an August 2009 collision involving a Eurocopter AS350 from New York-based tour operator Liberty Helicopters, and a privately owned Piper PA-32R over the Hudson River. Both pilots and seven passengers were killed. Las Vegas tour operator Sundance Helicopters was involved in two accidents: six passengers were killed when the blades of a Eurocopter AS350 struck the wall of the Grand Canyon in 2003; and in December last year, a crash near the Hoover Dam killed all five aboard.

Hawaii has also had its share of incidents. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Hawaiian helicopter tours accounted for 59 crashes from 1981 to 2008, 16 of them fatal, killing 46 tourists and nine pilots. One study found a majority of these crashes were down to poor mechanical maintenance.

Hafen credits a combination of effective surveillance, intensive training, stringent regulations and thorough maintenance for Niagara Helicopters' good record. With 52 surveillance cameras and eight radio frequencies (four for ground staff, four for flights) - and use of transponders required 24/7 - staffers know critical safety functions are always being verified. Hafen is also enthusiastic about modern computer systems in the cockpit.

FLIGHT STATISTICS

"You turn the master switch on, the monitoring starts," he says. An entire day's flight stats can be downloaded for analysis, and problems such as a weakening engine can be sensed before they spell danger. Deviations from approved flight policies make the computerised cockpit "light up like a Christmas tree" - not only for the offending pilot, but for whoever takes the controls next.

Government oversight includes an annual meeting of local operators, Transport Canada and the US FAA, as well as Canada-mandated yearly pilot proficiency checks, regardless of flight hours. The Niagara Helicopters heliport also undergoes eight federal inspections a year, only four of which are announced.

Hafen also cites the value of a year-round operation - a rarity in the tourism business - which keeps staffers sharp. The company employs 12 pilots, including Hafen, with five doubling as engineers. In December and January, the slowest tour season, all five helicopters are disassembled and vetted in the hangar "right down to the guts". Stringent insurance requirements mandate strict pilot qualifications. Applying pilots must have a minimum of 2,000h as pilot in command.

Operation-specific training requires an extraordinary investment of time and money, and Niagara Helicopters pilot and safety officer Travis Hopkin believes hiring highly experienced pilots, as well as their scrupulous training, is the most important element to keeping passengers safe. In addition to an initial training period of more than two months, all pilots undergo recurrent training every spring with Randy Bechtel, chief flight instructor and owner of Flight Check flight school, based in Fort Worth, Texas. At $1,800 for each three-session day, the cost of recurrent training alone comes to $35,000 a year. But Hafen considers Bechtel's expertise well worth the price.

Another less obvious component of Hafen's success in the costly arenas of training and maintenance is his relative local monopoly on business. Other operators, particularly in Hawaii or the American southwest, have ticket prices driven down by competitors. At a regular price of $130 per passenger, Hafen estimates a 5% profit margin on each flight, with about one-third of the company's total income going directly to aircraft maintenance.

Hopkin also says Niagara Helicopters benefits from being a highly specialised, centralised operation: "We're not hauling things in and out of bush camps." Unlike most Canadian operators, Niagara Helicopters lifts only tourists. A culture of care for the outside look of the helicopter, necessary to impress customers, naturally leads to equal attention for the aircraft's operation and mechanics.

Given how quickly and effectively governments mobilised once tragedy struck in the Niagara Falls airspace, Hafen believes that, particularly over the high-traffic, low-altitude corridor of the Hudson river, better regulation would save lives.