At the Montreal International Helicopter Safety Seminar (IHSS), Brig Gen Joseph Smith, US Army, presented the findings of safety studies on Class A military helicopter accidents (fatal accidents or damage costing more than $1 million). Smith is director of army safety and the commanding general of the US Army Combat Readiness Centre.

The number of Class A military helicopter accidents had been falling until the 1991 Gulf War, Smith said, then the figures levelled out for a decade. But after 9/11 they began to rise quickly and by far the majority of the accidents were “non-hostile”, he revealed.

“We focused on the enemy and forgot the hazards,” Smith said, and his team were charged with finding out why. “We found that 18-24-year-old males who had done a lot of combat thought that safety was a four-letter word…it was ‘something that stops us getting our job done’.” The problem was, Smith said, how do you tell war-hyped young men to be sensible about safety without killing the gung-ho spirit that keeps them going?

The answer, he believes, is “composite safety”. Such uninspiring terminology may seem like a cold shower to gung-ho pilots, but that is not necessarily so, said Smith. “Make the message personal,” he says.

The brief is to manage safety without becoming risk-averse. Before departure on a mission, argued Smith, the issue is “what’s going to take us out today?” It could be an enemy rocket-propelled grenade but, equally, it could be a wire-strike. So why let a power cable take you out? he asked. “Combat safety is accomplishment of the mission and returning from it,” he explained. The same concept could be applied to a civilian search and rescue or emergency medical support sortie.

Those who do return from missions get a debrief but, in its present form, Smith argues, it is of limited value. He wants – and hopefully will soon get – MFOQA, a military version of the widely used airline Flight Operations quality assurance programme, a system under which a digital flight data recorder records and – when downloaded to a computer – highlights operational exceedences and non-ideal performance.

MFOQA will allow instant flight playback on a computer, with an on-screen image of the flight instruments, simulated external view and voice recordings all time-co-ordinated. That is a real debrief, said Smith – it brings to life good or poor crew co-ordination, target fixation, a hundred other situations that can arise on a mission. Smith compared this to a spoken debrief: “To combat soldiers, words without pictures are just white noise.”

Source: Flight International