Encouragingly, the helicopter accident rate is declining thus far in 2014. In Canada, through August, there were no fatal helicopter accidents, compared with four in 2013 and a 2009-2013 average of five. Overall, the safety trend is flat: 23 total accidents versus an average of 24 in prior years.
In the U.S., for the first seven months of 2014, there has been a dramatic decline – the accident rate is down more than 51 per cent compared to a 2001-2005 baseline established by the United States Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), the American branch of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST). From January to July the rate was 3.94 accidents (against the 7.97 baseline) and 0.53 fatal accidents (versus the 2003 high of 1.78) for every 100,000 helicopter flight hours. This is especially positive viewed against 2013, which experienced an upward spike in fatalities: 0.86 fatalities per 100,000 hours and 4.20 accidents overall.
The UHST noted, “A stronger safety culture seems to be growing in the civil helicopter community.”
Safety is improving for a range of reasons: improved aircraft technology, new-design flight simulators with amazing realism, and volunteer groups such as the IHST.
The IHST was born in Montreal in the watershed year of 2005. Long-term helicopter accident rates had remained stubbornly high, so in September of that year, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the American Helicopter Society (AHS) hosted a gathering of operators, manufacturers, maintenance organizations, regulators, accident investigators, and professional associations from 13 countries and five continents for the International Helicopter Safety Symposium (IHSS).
Before the IHST was formed, the average number of annual civil helicopter accidents worldwide was at 570 and trending upward at 2.5 per cent. Since 2006, when the IHST co-operative effort was formed, the average has been 515, trending downward at 2 per cent. It was still unacceptably high, but certainly improving rather than regressing.
To determine why helicopter accidents continued to happen, the IHST chartered a Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT) to initiate a data-driven, benefit-focused safety program evolved from a process for commercial airline accidents developed by the U.S. Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) and Boeing. The IHST also set an ambitious goal of reducing the worldwide helicopter accident rate by 80 per cent by 2016.
A study by the Canadian JHSAT showed that for the period 2000-08, FAR 27 single piston helicopters represented 11.3 per cent of the flight hours flown by Canadian operators but disproportionally 24.9 per cent of the accidents. FAR 27 Single Turbines, the majority of the fleet (68.3 per cent of hours flown), accounted for a proportional 63.6 per cent of accidents. They found the top standard problems are pilot judgments, data issues, mission risks, pilot situational awareness, and safety management.
Today, nearly 40 regions and countries support the efforts of the IHST: in addition to the U.S. and Canada, safety teams have been established in Brazil, Europe, India, Japan, and the Middle East-North Africa. Corollary efforts continue in Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, and South America.
Over the past almost-decade, the IHST and its international partners have published safety toolkits, educational videos and leaflets, and specific safety recommendations, all aimed at promoting a safety culture among helicopter operators, large and small, worldwide.
In my opinion, the volunteers who contribute their expertise and time to the safety teams and various technical and policy working groups are the unsung heroes of the aviation community. Many of the volunteers serve on multiple committees (new volunteers are certainly welcome). Even though they work for business competitors or agencies with political masters, the subject experts do their utmost to set conflicting agendas aside in the interests of safety for the common good. Without the volunteers, aviation would be either less harmonized and more chaotic or over-regulated to the detriment of economic interests.
Thank you, helicopter safety volunteers. Your efforts are incalculable. Please keep up this important work.
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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