Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Blind Leading the Blind?

July 18, 2014  By Rick Adams

You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. You can lead a pilot to safety information but, apparently, you cannot make him or her . . .

You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. You can lead a pilot to safety information but, apparently, you cannot make him or her . . .

Over the past few years, the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) and its affiliates, aircraft manufacturers, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and other safety-minded groups have issued a sling-load full of bulletins, pamphlets, brochures, videos, guidance documents, and other educational materials in the effort to reduce rotorcraft accident rates.

In addition, there are hundreds of presentations at conferences such as the annual CHC Safety & Quality Summit, the American Helicopter Society’s Forum, the Helicopter Association of Canada convention, the EASA Rotorcraft Symposium, Royal Aeronautical Society events, oil and gas industry aviation seminars, and other specialty groups.

But are operators and their pilots paying attention? Of 300 pilots who responded last year to an Airbus Helicopter Training Services survey, all of whom had received IHST safety leaflets and toolkits in paper or electronic format, 80 per cent admitted they never read or used the material. Appalling, discouraging, maybe not surprising.


Last year’s rising accident rate would seem to confirm that too many pilots are not paying attention. In the United States, for example, where the number of accidents had declined from a 190 rolling three-year average between 2001 to 2003 to an average of 138 by 2009 to 2011 – a more than 27 per cent drop – the accident rate has begun to creep up again: from 148 in 2012 and 147 in 2011. More alarming, the number of fatal accidents jumped from 19 in 2011, to 23 in 2012, and 30 in 2013, the worst single year since 2008 when there were 35 fatal helicopter crashes.

The IHST says globally the average is trending downward about two per cent a year, now at slightly more than 500 total accidents per year.

A March 2014 report by the U.S. Joint Helicopter Implementation Measurement Data Analysis Team (JHIMDAT), comparing accidents in 2009 to 2011 with a previous analysis of accidents in 2000, 2001 and 2006, tried to ask the proverbial “why” questions: “Why is stagnancy and regression so prevalent?” or “Why have implementation measures been less effective?” The available data did not yield clear answers. “Perhaps some degree of implementation occurred yet did not produce any improvement. Unfortunately, there is also the possibility that implementation may never have occurred at all,” the JHIMDAT group lamented.

One thing the data does show is that personal, instructional, and agricultural flying continue to top the accident list and their share rose to 57 per cent of all accidents in the 2009 to 2011 time period. But we also know commercial large aircraft operators are not immune.

The IHST, which had last year shifted its goal from an 80 per cent overall accident reduction by 2016 to “zero tolerance,” is now asking its worldwide partners “to establish an additional focus regarding the steps that can be taken to prevent fatalities in helicopter accidents.”

The recommendation of the IHST volunteer subject experts – which includes representatives from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky Aircraft, Boeing, NASA, a major city police department, and an aviation university – is either “more rigorous implementation measures” or “a more effective plan for ensuring that operators are actively using the implementation resources already available.”

As the majority of accidents are in the under 12,500-pounds gross weight category, should the regulatory authorities require that pilots have type ratings, as with larger aircraft? AgustaWestland’s Roberto Caprarella says yes, because, “helicopters can do more in more challenging conditions.” But Sara Monger, representing Bell Helicopter, notes, “the FAA and the industry itself have not thought this to be a need. The insurance companies do a pretty fair job of ensuring pilots are training in model before they extend insurance.”

Steve Phillips, vice president, communications for FlightSafety International, views the current regulatory structure as “more than sufficient” and is concerned a “formal type-rating process could potentially burden single-engine helicopter training programs with excessive requirements that could not contribute to safer operations.” FlightSafety would, however, “recommend some regulatory structure that included formal initial and at least biannual formal training be required.”

The ultimate improvement in safety, of course, must come from the operators and pilots themselves through a safety attitude, an embedded safety culture, and the flight-by-flight vigilance of attention to even the smallest detail.

Rick Adams is Chief Perspectives Officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy based in the south of France. He has been writing about technology and training for 30 years.


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