US military moves to cut helicopter accident rates

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Flight International online news 11:00GMT: The US military is to invest jointly in civil-derived helicopter safety management systems in a bid to cut non-combat accidents.


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Brig Gen Joseph Smith, director of army safety and commanding general of the US army combat readiness centre, says non-combat attrition rates have increased dramatically since 9/11.

“In 2002 the Department of Defense told us that preventable accidents must come down by 50% by 2005: they didn’t,” Smith told the American Helicopter Society’s International Helicopter Safety Symposium in Montreal, Canada. “We focused on the enemy and forgot the hazards,” he says.

Joseph Creekmore from the army’s Aviation and Missile Command Safety Office says that while there is no extra DoD funding on offer, the cost of losses in terms of trained manpower and machines is so high that a programme that promises to cut accidents could be more than self-funding. The army says it is setting aside $11 million for 2006, the first year of implementing the new system.

The new safety tool that the US Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy have pledged to adopt is a military version of the airline industry’s flight-operations quality assurance programme. Now in its final definition stage, the new system will be an on-board flight operations monitoring system enabling the immediate PC-based debrief of crew performance during a mission, complete with voice playback, instrument panel, flight trajectory and external visual simulation overlaid on a terrain database.

The military wants a single crash-survivable box that combines the functions of a solid-state flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder, but is prepared to limit the number of data streams to keep the system simple and practical. The problem is in satisfying all four service air arms, because the DoD wants to introduce a universal tool. Creekmore says it is recognised that the system cannot be fitted to “heritage” machines, but modern equipment such as Boeing’s AH-64 Apache helicopter and new-build aircraft will have digital source collectors that FDRs can plug into.

Smith aims to promote a “composite risk management” attitude to safety among frontline pilots, which asks them to concentrate before each mission on “what’s going to take us out today”. Research has discovered that in the heat of the frontline “safety had become a four-letter word”, he says. “We found that 18- to 24-year-olds who had done a lot of combat thought that safety was something that ‘stopped us from getting our jobs done’.”

DAVID LEARMOUNT/MONTREAL

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