Persuading industry to invest in smart safety equipment would be the best system in an ideal world. Sometimes it needs to be told

A move by the US Federal Aviation Administration to persuade helicopter manufacturers to fit smarter safety equipment than regulations demand is bearing fruit. Bell Helicopter, MD Helicopters and Sikorsky are all about to fit flight data/cockpit voice recorders (CVR/FDR) and terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS) and health monitoring systems (HUMS) in their new-build aircraft.

This is not just the FAA’s work. In fact the motivation is a uniquely US cocktail of pressures that come from within and without. First, the FAA prefers to persuade rather than regulate, and its persuasion works something like this: “Please do it because it brings benefits even if it adds cost; and if you don’t, in due course we’ll make you.”

Meanwhile, these moves by the manufacturers are also a symptom of the spontaneous wave of rotary-wing safety concern that created last September’s industry-generated International Helicopter Safety Seminar (IHSS) in Montreal and the safety programmes that will soon emanate from it. Another factor was the National Transportation Safety Board’s recently published study on helicopter emergency medical services (EMS) accidents.

The main motivation for calling the IHSS had been the fact that other aviation sectors – particularly the airlines – have been reducing their accident rate by a significant amount through the use of data-driven studies that produced pro-active safety plans. Meanwhile, the rotary-wing world was not being pro-active and the accident rate was remaining the same.

Among the means the airlines used to advance their safety causes was to fit TAWS, adopt flight operations monitoring, and, meanwhile, reap the benefits that accrued from the improved crew situational awareness delivered by modern cockpits. Helicopters operators can do the same, but as with everything concerned with rotary wing, it is more complex. Airliners all conduct basically the same type of mission, the only variables being the range and the degree of infrastructure sophistication at the departure and arrival airports. Helicopters do not necessarily use airports or even heliports, they normally fly quite close to the ground, and the mission variables are almost infinite. Any smart boxes that work for airlines have to be even smarter for helicopters, but in addition they need to be smaller, lighter, and to make sense in cost/benefit terms even to small operators.

Sometimes, however, industry just needs to be told what to do, and when it does the FAA should not shrink from doing it. When the Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team, framed at the IHSS, issues its recommendations later this year, the FAA – already part of the process –- should not convene more talking shops: it should regulate where necessary. The FAA has done good work with its persuasion system, but one of the advantages of actual regulation for operators is that it creates a level playing field for everyone.

Source: Flight International