Plea to curb rate of helicopter crashes

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Industry implored to address poor safety performance

Commercial helicopter operators, manufacturers and industry associations must agree a strategy to address the unacceptably high rotary-wing aircraft accident rate, which is at least 10 times worse than that achieved by the world’s airlines, warns American Helicopter Society (AHS) chairman Dr William Forster.

AHS and the Helicopter Association International (HAI) want action to slash the accident rate by 80% in 10 years, said Forster, speaking at the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium (IHSS) in Montreal, Canada last week.

The 80% improvement target was calculated by the IHSS organising committee to be “achievable”, and at the event itself there was tangible optimism and enthusiasm for the project among delegates from all sectors of the helicopter industry, including the military.

There was a massive improvement in helicopter safety between the 1960s and 1980s, says the AHS, mostly because equipment became more reliable, but since then the graph has remained level and shows no sign of improvement.

AHS executive director Rhett Flater said the plan is to create a task force with a similar structure and brief as that of the US Federal Aviation Administration-chaired Civil Aviation Safety Team (CAST). CAST identified and set priorities for action in operations, aircraft design and equipment areas in which improvement would bring the greatest safety benefits. That team, however, had a much easier task than the helicopter industry leaders face, admitted Flater, because it was dealing mostly with FAR Part 121 airlines.

These were large organisations with the resources to respond to recommendations, whereas 80% of the member companies in the HAI are small independent businesses owning four or fewer helicopters, many of them veteran aircraft and most of them single-engined, operating in a cost-constrained industry.

DAVID LEARMOUNT/MONTREAL

Read David Learmount's blog on helicopter safety

Whole community must act

The International Helicopter Safety Symposium (IHSS) is the world’s first specialist conference on rotary-wing aircraft safety. Originally the brainchild of Bell Helicopter Textron research manager Somen Chowdhury, it was at first going to involve only manufacturers. American Helicopter Society executive director Rhett Flater says, however, that the organising committee quickly realised they could only achieve the planned massive improvement in safety performance if they could persuade all industry sectors to “buy in” to the project. All sectors, he says, means the regulators, operators of all sizes and in all spheres from oil support to air ambulance, and the manufacturers. Improvement will come in the long term through the introduction of the latest-generation helicopters, but that option is not open to many operators for some time, says Flater.

The solutions will vary from zero-cost strategies such as introducing a more disciplined corporate safety culture, to installing equipment like enhanced ground proximity warning and health and usage monitoring systems. There is already interest in holding regional helicopter safety symposia in South America and India, Chowdhury says, so the ideas will spread internationally. But the first step, he says, is to persuade the industry to recognise that its safety performance has to improve, and to work out the strategy for doing it. “We will go for the low-hanging fruit first to create a sense of achievement, then the will to do more will follow,” he says.