US helicopter safety drive may be paying dividends

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After stagnating for two decades, US helicopter accident rates fell by 32% and were down 13.7% in the rest of the world in 2006. And a study by Bell Helicopter Textron for the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) says those rates of improvement look to have been sustained through the first half of 2007.

Speaking at the 19-21 September International Helicopter Safety Seminar in Montreal, Bell's head of flight safety, Roy Fox, suggested that the IHST safety improvement programme, designed to reduce the world helicopter accident rate by 80% by 2016, may have played a part in this sudden change. Although none of the early findings of the IHST's Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT), revealed at the Montreal meeting, have yet been implemented, Fox said: "When you start thinking about safety, you get safer. That's my take on it."

Following the JHSAT's first report, based on an exhaustive analysis of 197 US helicopter accidents in 2000, the essential advice is that operators should pay more attention to risk management at all levels, and to do this by adopting safety management systems.

The JHSAT divided the accidents into 15 categories according to what the purpose of the flight was: the four categories that suffered the highest numbers of accidents in 2000 were instructional flights, personal/private flights, aerial application, and emergency medical services. The most common significant factors the JHSAT found were present in accident reports were issues of pilot judgement and action, lack of data following an accident, and lack of a safety management system.

Yet although the USA operates about 50% of the world's helicopter fleet, it suffers only 40% of global rotary wing accidents, says the JHSAT, implying that the rest of the world's helicopter operators are even less safe

Under the IHST programme, regional JHSATs will be set up all over the world to spread the work that the US JHSAT has already begun.

In the USA a second body, the Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team (JHSIT) has already begun work drawing up proposals for measures that will actively promote safety among operators and regulators, based on the data provided by the JHSAT. Meanwhile the US JHSAT is continuing its work to enlarge the period of study beyond the year 2000, which was taken as the starting point.

Helicopter safety – why now? 

The JHSAT is the product of an initiative formally launched in 2005 by the IHST, an industry-led initiative born of the realisation that US and world helicopter accident numbers had not been reducing over the past 20 years. This contrasted dramatically with accident rates for fixed-wing aviation that had been dropping significantly.

The latter had been achieved since the USA set up the Civil Aviation Safety Team (CAST) to carry out a systemic analysis of accident causes and develop data-led, prioritised improvement strategies to address the issues involved, and this system has been mirrored in programmes in Europe and elsewhere. The JHSAT/JHSIT system is based on CAST.