A promising year of safety
October 18, 2018 By Walter Heneghan
With the fall upon us and winter beckoning, it is a good time to pause and reflect on the industry accident stats for 2018 to date. It is premature to summarize the year with three full months still to play out, but so far the accident profiles, as gleaned from Transport Canada’s CADORS database, have been pretty good for the industry – even in a down year of activity.
There had been 15 accidents reported in Canada as of mid-September 2018, two of which were fatal with a total of four fatalities. Unfortunately, a pilot in late-September also lost his life in Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ont. The two fatal accidents I reviewed on CADORS were privately owned and operated aircraft. It is interesting to note how the accidents were nearly evenly distributed among different phases of flight: Cruise, approach/landing and hover/ground operations.
The distribution of aircraft types was pretty even as well with a third Bell, a third Airbus and the remainder involving Robinson and Hughes aircraft. The event categories also followed a predictable pattern with controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) or into a fixed object (wires, buildings, trees, etc.) comprising the majority of the accidents; and only one event being linked to mechanical failure. This CFIT profile is consistent with previous years and reflects an unfortunate reality of our industry: When we operate close to the ground or fixed objects, our risk increases. Wire strikes, blade strikes and CFIT events will ruin anybody’s day and can have long-lasting negative effects on a company and its employees.
So what, if anything, can we conclude from this cursory look at accident stats? For starters, we know from past experience that this dataset is incomplete and potentially misleading regarding the industry risk profile. From the same dataset, I noted there were 311 reports (incidents and accidents) ranging from minor airspace or communications violations to the above-mentioned fatalities.
One would need to review each report and assign a risk rating to effectively map the risks (I have not done this, sorry). Further, while there are some items that must be reported to Transport Canada, many incidents occur within daily operations that are just dealt with by the pilots involved and never make it into their company’s safety database, let alone Transport Canada’s. Without broad, widespread reporting of risk related events, a complete risk picture cannot be drawn.
The data available to us would lead to a sketch maybe, but certainly not any sort of comprehensive picture. I have written previously about the importance of reporting systems. The broader and deeper the commitment to encouraging hazard and incident reporting, the better equipped managers will be to fully understand operational challenges of their businesses. The need for the development of a comprehensive dataset for Canadian helicopter operations comes down to a simple Deming-ish fact: We cannot manage what we do not measure.
I know there have been attempts by industry leaders in Canada to develop an industry-wide event database for the benefit of all. This would be a repository of all operators’ safety events, incidents, close calls, near misses and accidents, categorized in a manner similar to the CADORS dataset and accessible by all. This data could be de-identified, scrubbed of information that would identify or implicate a particular operator but retain the salient facts: Phase of flight, aircraft type, operational profile, etc. I posit that such a collection of data would provide very valuable information, and with proper commitment, a data set that would show thousands not hundreds of events per year.
Indeed, our industry association, the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC), could be the guardian of this data and could even provide the horsepower to analyze and trend the information. Without question, accidents tell a story about risk; but a broader, fully comprehensive collection of all the ancillary events throughout industry would enrich our understanding of the full risk spectrum and could potentially provide valuable insight into more effective risk management.
A strong reporting culture is key to developing effective safety management systems. The broader the dataset, the better the trend analysis and the more detailed our understanding of risk. A broad cooperative industry-wide database and safety management system can bring real benefits to all helicopter operators, to our customers and to our bottom line. The time is ripe for such collaboration. The question is: Who will pick up the torch?
Walter Heneghan is an experienced and well-travelled pilot who has served as the top safety professional at Canadian Helicopters and Summit Aviation. He is currently working with CHC Helicopter in Kazakhstan as an SMS development specialist. He is a regular contributor to Helicopters and Wings magazines.