Fixed-wing aircraft have a much better safety record than rotorcraft but a new initiative aims to cut helicopter accident rates by 80%

Eurocopter AS332 Super puma W250

Both crew members survived the crash of a Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma involved in Hurricane Katrina relief operations in New Orleans
Helicopter safety is not good enough. Helicopter Association International (HAI) president Roy Resavage admits it: “We have a problem and the status quo is unacceptable,” he told the International Helicopter Safety Seminar (IHSS) in Montreal, Canada last September.

Since then, plans hatched in Montreal have evolved and talk is turning into action. This week at the HAI Heli-Expo show in Dallas, the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) formed at the Canadian seminar will be announcing details of its Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT). The team’s goal will be to identify, quantify and prioritise the rotary-wing world’s most critical safety problems so that solutions can be found.

The IHSS was the first large-scale, global seminar dedicated solely to helicopter safety. Many industry gatherings have included safety as a component but the IHSS differed in its openness and its readiness to admit the unadmittable. American Helicopter Society International (AHSI) executive director Rhett Flater says the event achieved “acknowledgement by all participants that the helicopter accident rate is excessive and unsustainable over any longer period of time”. The seminar participants clearly decided, says Flater, that the attitude that some accidents are “business as usual” is “no longer good enough”. Finally, the IHSS achieved “a commitment by all representatives of industry, the operator community and the international regulatory agencies to work together in a voluntary civil aviation safety team”, he says.

It took a senior engineer at Bell Helicopter – Somen Chowdhury, research manager at the manufacturer’s Montreal Mirabel site – to voice the need for a change in attitude to rotary-wing safety. Chowdury took his ideas to the AHSI, where his arguments that safety could and should be improved were positively received. Working first with the AHSI, then the HAI, a consensus developed that, to be successful, any such movement would have to embrace all sectors of the industry, including regulatory and military elements. The IHSS was the result: 260 delegates from all over the world, civilian and military, attended the event and agreed that rotary-wing accident rates could be reduced by 80% by the year 2015.

Ten years ago, the airline industry successfully adopted a more methodical approach toward improving industry-wide safety. Since then, the already massive difference in safety performance between fixed-wing and rotary-wing commercial transport has increased as airline safety has improved while rotary safety has remained the same. In the USA, for example, airlines got together with the Federal Aviation Administration, worked out priorities for improving safety and established the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), a model successfully copied by Latin American and Caribbean fixed-wing operators who formed the Pan American Aviation Safety Team (PAAST) (see “Precedents” right). Now, the regional model for assessment and implementation of safety initiatives developed for fixed-wing operators can be used as a template for helicopter operators and the CAST model has been adopted by the IHST.


After a detailed study, the US FAA found that, over the last 20 years, airline safety has improved significantly but, while fixed-wing general aviation accident rates diminished, helicopter rates remained almost unchanged and any trend was so slight as to be meaningless. The UK Civil Aviation Authority found much the same. Part of the FAA study shows how – in all sectors except rotary-wing – the beneficial effects of specific new technologies or co-ordinated safety programmes kicked in with positive results.

Helicopter safety feature graphs WL


nologies that are effective for airlines ranged from windshear warning in the 1980s to terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS) in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the beneficial effects of individual technologies were increased by improving levels of airframe, system and engine reliability, as well as flightdeck avionics in the latest generation of aircraft that confer greater pilot situational awareness.

There are parallel technological improvements available to helicopter operators with the most modern machines but the safety benefits do not appear to have been realised in the same way, according to insurers. The insurance industry believes there is evidence to suggest that the more capable helicopters become, the more risks operators are prepared to take with them. John Spence, of underwriter Atrium, says: “Technological advances in helicopters can be used to widen the flight envelope whereas on a commercial aircraft the benefit would be wholly for safety.”

Flater at the AHSI uses figures provided by the Aviation Underwriters Association to compare accident rates: the US civil helicopter accident rate in 2004 was 8.09 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, with a fatal accident rate of 1.48. The respective figures for civil turbine helicopters are 5.11 and 1.21; in the on-demand air taxi sector – operating under Part 135 rules – the respective rates are better at 1.21 and 0.78 per 100,000 flight hours.

On the other hand, Part 121 airlines achieved an accident rate of 0.159 and a fatal accident rate of 0.011. Flater, anticipating the response that task comparisons make the airline figures irrelevant, points out that the overall US fixed-wing GA accident rates, at 6.22 per 100,000 flight hours, is 30% lower than for helicopters and that, if the industry is aiming for an overall accident rate reduction of 80%, the target figure is 1.62, which is higher than the rate that the Part 135 air taxi helicopter operators achieve now.

The final day of the IHSS was given over to a series of brainstorming sessions on safety themes to provide ideas for the IHST as it formed its near-term strategy. US FAA manager rotorcraft Dave Downey, chairing the session on helicopter safety regulation, commented that rules are not enough and that “to sell safety, one needs to explain the pay-off”. Shell Aircraft Bob Sheffield managing director working on the economics of safety, urged the JHSAT to “focus on efforts that will do the most good for the least money,” taking account not only of fatalities but also of serious injuries.

Flater’s list of ideas from the IHSS final day sessions is formidable and will influence the work of the JHSAT and its executive partner organisation, the Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team (JHSIT). Two consistent themes which became apparent were the need for more precise helicopter-specific definitions of the basic criteria, such as accidents and incidents, and better central reporting of events so that data gathered internationally can be meaningfully compared and progress toward the 80% accident rate-reduction target tracked reliably.

Among other significant ideas to emerge from the IHSS forum were calls to:

  • establish motivators with accreditation programmes for improved safety in all sectors, including private operations;
  • lobby regulators to make onboard recorders like health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS), flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR) mandatory;
  • develop improved guidelines on duty hours and crew fatigue to take into account the industry sector and the nature of the operation based on best practice, and establish a management-backed, fatigue-sensitive culture. This is seen as a particular failing of the existing helicopter operating culture;
  • automate numerous functions, particularly in landings interrupted by brownout, incidents involving the loss of tail rotor effectiveness and situations predisposed to rollover.
  • increase automation to make helicopters easier to fly, thereby releasing pilot capacity for improved situational awareness;
  • improve standardisation of information display and controls;
  • extend accident analysis to accommodate differences in contributory factors according to the type of operation, so that best practices can be developed relating to specific operations such as emergency medical service (EMS), offshore support, seismic survey or logging;
  • ensure crash survivability is a major design objective in new aircraft and those undergoing modifications or retrofits. Enhancements such as impact-absorbing seats and crashworthy fuel tanks should be considered as well as lessons learned from military experience;
  • emphasise the need for full instrument rating as part of pilot training, at least for inadvertent IMC training; and increase the use of simulator-based training, especially for relatively high-risk training scenarios like autorotation and emergencies.

The price is right

Given the recommendation that more simulator training be used, particularly for high-risk manoeuvres or emergencies that are too dangerous to replicate in the air, recent developments in low-cost, high-fidelity simulation look as if they may put such training within the price range of small operators that could never consider it before.

For example, UK-based Bond Air Services says it could eliminate up to 100% of air-time for certain types of helicopter pilot licence endorsement training by using a high-fidelity, low-cost, Level 3 flight-training device (FTD) developed in association with Qinetiq subsidiary CueSim. This training would normally require a full-flight simulator (FFS), but the UK Civil Aviation Authority has ruled that Bond’s recently certificated FTD can fulfil almost all the European JAR-STD requirements, which Bond promises for considerably less than the price of FFS or airborne time.

Although it does not offer the ability to confer a zero flight-time instrument rating, use of the FTD can reduce the airborne time needed. Bond says it is now working with CueSim and the CAA to develop software which would facilitate approved training in specialist operational areas not available before.

These include the ability to train pilots in flying with night-vision imaging systems, including night-vision goggles, and expanding the existing three-dimensional visual display terrain database in order to carry out line-orientated flight training in the environment in which the pilot will actually be operating.

Helicopter update

The call to study the factors specific to accidents that occur in specialist roles was amplified by the spate of emergency medical services (EMS) accidents involving both helicopters and fixed wing air ambulance operations in the USA since 2002. There have been 55 accidents involving EMS operations, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Although the move toward setting up the IHSS was under way independently of the recent EMS safety experience, an awareness of the scale of the problem gave added relevance to the many EMS operators who attended the event.

The NTSB has recently published a special report on EMS operations (see feature P72) and called for stricter regulation in that sector. Meanwhile. in August last year the FAA published a system to help operators carry out an operational risk assessment based on numerous factors including the pilot’s experience, meteorological conditions, terrain and the task that needs to be performed, among other considerations.

One of the demands that emerged from the IHSS was that there should be more seminars similarly focused on helicopter safety. The industry response in the months following could ensure that Montreal is the first of many events to address the rotary-wing safety issue.


Source: Flight International