An unprecedented gathering of the rotary-wing community has agreed that cutting accidents must be the overwhelming priority

Helicopter safety is not good enough, some of the most significant players in the helicopter industry have decided. More than that, they have decided to do something about it.

Led by the American Helicopter Society (AHS) and the Helicopter Association International (HAI), the symposium consisted of leading manufacturers, regulators from four countries, and both civil and military operators. They gathered in Montreal, Canada last week at the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium (IHSS). Montreal was chosen as a venue because it is the location of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s global headquarters, but it was undoubtedly no coincidence that the inspiration for the event – the recognition of the need for it and the early work to make the event happen – came from Somen Chowdhury, research manager at Bell Helicopter Textron’s Montreal Mirabel plant.

“Historic” is an over-used word, but it applies to the IHSS: the first-ever international attempt to start a movement to persuade the helicopter industry – from within – that it can and must raise its safety standards. The conference agreed on an 80% reduction in the helicopter accident rate within 10 years.

The issue is not that helicopter operation is unsafe, but that since the 1980s it has failed to improve while other sections of the industry – particularly the airlines and business aviation – have recorded major safety advances. There is a sense that professional helicopter operators, by comparison, are getting left behind, and that this perception is beginning to dawn on clients. The fact that, within the industry itself, there are some exemplary large operators whose accident rates compare with those of corporate and airline fixed-wing is seen as proof that helicopter safety can be better, and that most rotary-wing accidents these days fall into the categories of “human factors” (HF) and “avoidable”.

That is the industry’s judgement of itself. Regulators from four nations may have attended the IHSS, but the impetus originated with the AHS manufacturers, which decided the drive to improve safety could only be successful if they could get “buy-in” from all sectors of the helicopter operating community.

They did get buy-in. But this first conference was only small – a gathering of about 250 people – so there is a long way to go yet.

There was, however, a tangible aura of optimism, enthusiasm and energy about the IHSS. One of the most remarkable things about it was not only that there was a large military participation, but how much synergy there was between the delegates from the civil and military arenas. On reflection, this should not have been particularly surprising, because helicopters are used by military and civil operators in similar roles – with the exception of attack aircraft. And the military’s main concern is not so much the losses of pilots, soldiers and equipment inflicted by the enemy, but those caused by ordinary, unforced accidents. Some of the accidents may have taken place in Iraq, but many did not take place under fire, and many more were to aircraft operating from their home bases.

The four-day IHSS was not just a talking shop, but an event at which to identify problem areas and to define them, after which a task force is to be created to ensure that strategies for action in specific areas can be defined, whether in training, operational techniques, equipment, design, management and risk assessment. The multi-disciplinary task force is to use the template of one of the successful systems adopted more than a decade ago by the airline industry – the USA’s CAST (commercial aviation safety team), which identified the highest profile risks and prioritised action for them according to where the potential largest gains for safety would be.

The IHSS has made a good start down the road to improved rotary-wing safety. One of the essential characteristics of the rotary-wing industry, however, is that it is made up mostly of small operators. This group was – predictably at this early stage – poorly represented at the symposium; but buy-in from this sector, which makes up about 80% of the HAI’s membership, is crucial to success. Chowdhury emphasises that considerable progress towards reducing accidents can come at virtually no cost by going first for the “low-hanging fruit” – accidents that can be prevented by better risk assessment and management strategies. Within a few months, those strategies will be on the table, if the industry gets behind the AHS and the HAI.


Source: Flight International