The Age-Old Question
Will the Age of an Aircraft Really Produce a Safer Operation?
Let’s face it. We all love challenges or everyone in this industry would abandon helicopters, just like everyone except the federal government has abandoned fax machines.
That said, challenges are enjoyable but only if you expect a reasonable chance of success – or frustration will set in before long. Like a chubby-thumb-syndrome sufferer typing too fast on an iPhone, when the effort far exceeds the return, you will want to throw up those chubby thumbs and do something else.
I felt this point approaching in the third week of June, but it could have been because I was writing this column on an Air Canada Rouge flight from South America that departed Lima at 2:55 a.m. Surely a descendant of the de Sade family runs scheduling at Air Canada. To add insult to injury, I committed the heinous crime of secreting a bottle of Chilean Pisco in my bag. Since Chile and Peru have used artillery on each other to settle the all-important questions of who invented Pisco and whose is best, I was detained for more than an hour and paid triple the purchase price in order to keep it.
In the all-pervasive shadow of this record-setting downturn, I am dismayed to see more challenges arising, in areas hitherto are somewhat immune. The one we are wrestling with right now we have seen periodically, but it’s becoming more or less de rigueur in other countries. Will it soon dominate Canada? What challenge am I talking about? It’s airframe age limits – the bane of the operator and the elixir of the OEM. Where did this idea of a time-life machine originate? I understand this concert with airliners, taking into account their landing and pressurization cycles, but why helicopters? Not that long ago, Canadian operators would win a contract in some foreign land, arrive with a few aged Bell 212s with 20,000-plus hours and do what we do best. But now, that same client, who waxed poetic around the level of service and the skill of the pilots and engineers, is demanding we use aircraft that are under 10 years old.
Where did this demand originate and is there any impact at all on real safety? Do we not change out dynamic components as they come due and periodically refurbish airframes? Some of the shops around the world that specialize in refurbishment can turn out an aircraft looking (and smelling) factory-new at a fraction of the price, without a single compromise on the safety front, from what I see. Personal experience tells me a well-maintained helicopter performs the same irrespective of airframe hours, whether it has 100 or 20,000. Maybe the blades are close to retirement and the hook loads are 10 per cent less than they once were, but soon the helicopter will have new blades installed and watch out!
New wings cost as much or more than a new aircraft when you compare this to a fixed-wing aircraft of similar size. New car smells aside, I have seen growing pains inflicted by zero-time factory aircraft, so age and hours are just metrics, and could be irrelevant to boot, if one only thinks of safety as the desired result.
Yesterday I argued with a client (on hour two of my 22-hour pre-boarding day) about this. I explained how a Bell 212, for instance, was refurbished every 3,000 hours, with the final product (if conducted to a proper standard) possibly exceeding factory-new in finish and quality. They said their advisors tell them every time an aircraft is disassembled, a potential exists that some worker assembled something incorrectly. While this is essentially indisputable, does this somehow preclude errors at the OEM factory? Are new aircraft snag free? I can personally vouch for the negative here, having picked up new aircraft more than once. The human element is the human element, irrespective of whether they are in our hangar or theirs! Are aircraft certified to modern standards safer? I think hypothetically they can be, as they are designed to avoid accidents from system failures and are designed to crash better, but here we run into the elephant in the room, namely the main cause of incidents is still decisions made by the pilot, airframe age be damned. It would be really nice if we could get new aircraft every decade, but in Canada, I think this is far in the future. Perhaps a paradigm shift is in order? Like our pilots, helicopters are safe and age does little to dampen that! Trust me.
Corey Taylor is vice-president of Global Business and Product Development for Great Slave Helicopters. Great Slave is a private company with more than 50 helicopters and that 45 pilots operating both in Canada and international locations around the globe.
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