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February 23, 2009  By Fred Brisbois

Life is full of opportunities and challenges. Some are daunting and at first may seem impossible or at least be very intimidating. Aviation Safety offers its own opportunities and challenges. Death or injury sustained in the crash of a helicopter is as tragic as it is in the crash of an airliner.


Life is full of opportunities and challenges. Some are daunting and at first may seem impossible or at least be very intimidating. Aviation Safety offers its own opportunities and challenges. Death or injury sustained in the crash of a helicopter is as tragic as it is in the crash of an airliner. Shouldn’t we afford the same level of safety to everyone regardless of what type aircraft they are flying in?

The 2005 International Helicopter Safety Symposium in Montreal marked the beginning of an international effort by the helicopter industry to reduce the accident rate by at least 80 per cent by 2016. The International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) was formed to lead efforts toward reaching that objective. The IHST formed the Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT) to analyze the accident history and provide recommendations to reduce the accident rate and the Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team (JHSIT) to develop cost-effective strategies and action plans to reduce accidents.

Can the accident rate really be reduced by 80 per cent? When we transport people in an aircraft, their expectation of safely arriving at their destination should be the same regardless of the type aircraft being flown. Engineering technology and manufacturing processes for helicopters are on par with fixed-wing aircraft. Engineering standards combined with certification requirements should result in the probability of a helicopter accident due to a mechanical malfunction being no greater than the probability of a fixed-wing aircraft accident due to a mechanical malfunction.

That leaves human and environmental factors to be addressed. Environmental limitations for airplanes and helicopters are known and accounted for in their design; therefore, with proper planning and information, environmental conditions exceeding the capability of the aircraft or crew can be identified and imparted to the crews. By doing so, the only remaining area to address is the human element. 


This is the major area of vulnerability to address. Helicopters require more coordinated and diverse piloting skills than airplanes, but both require a certain level of training and proficiency. Helicopters are more diverse in the missions and in the conditions they fly in, so the key to having an accident rate on par with a commercial airliner is having safety management systems and training programs for decision-making that are properly tailored for helicopter operations. This should help abate the potential for human error.

The IHST was formed to lead a government and industry cooperative effort to address the factors that affect the accident rate. The IHST chose to pursue the aggressive goal of reducing the worldwide civil and military helicopter accident rates by 80 per cent in 10 years by adopting a known process with a demonstrated track record. Great strides had recently been made by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) to reduce substantially the worldwide fatal accident rate in the commercial air carrier community. This motivated the IHST to use the process developed by CAST. That process was linked directly to real accident data, used a broad spectrum of industry experts to analyze it and had objective success measurements to ensure that the actions taken had the desired effect.

Accordingly, the IHST chartered the Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT) to adapt the CAST process for analyzing helicopter accident data. It also offered recommendations intended to reduce the helicopter accident rate. The JHSAT was comprised of industry helicopter safety experts representing operators, airframe and engine manufacturers, and regulators. Most of the JHSAT team members had substantial accident investigation or safety research experience.  This team of professionals normally meets for one week every month, analyzing accidents and developing data-driven recommendations. The JHSAT analyzed 197 reported helicopter accidents for the year 2000 as recorded in the National Transportation Safety Board’s U.S. database. From this analysis, 57 recommendations applicable to all helicopter operations were made.

The core members of the JHSIT are professionals with diverse aviation safety experience. The first step of the JHSIT process was to develop a method to prioritize the recommendations based on the feasibility of their implementation and their individual contribution to achieving the IHST goal. Six working groups were formed to develop the implementation strategies for the JHSAT recommendations: Safety Management Systems; Training; Systems, Equipment & Information; Maintenance; Regulatory; and Infrastructure.

One of the major strategies of the JHSIT is to develop toolkits and provide them, along with reference material and guidelines, to operators to help them implement the recommendations of the JHSAT. The JHSAT found that a major contributing factor in many accidents was failure to adequately manage known risks. In fact, 46 per cent of accidents involved at least one safety management problem. Due to the lack of a systematic process, including leadership and accountability, operators did not adequately prioritize and address the risks that led to most accidents. Safety management problems included the operators’ apparent attitudes toward assessing risk as well as how organizations manage safety as part of their business ethics. Implementation of a Safety Management System (SMS) is the most important step in reducing the potential for an accident. Without an SMS, you almost double the chances of having an accident.

SMS can best be defined as a coordinated, comprehensive set of processes designed to direct and control resources to manage safety optimally. SMS takes unrelated processes and builds them into one coherent structure to achieve a higher level of safety performance, making safety management an integral part of overall risk management.  SMS is based on leadership and accountability. It requires proactive hazard identification, risk management, information control, auditing and training. It also includes incident and accident investigation and analysis.

To help operators better manage safety, the JHSIT compiled a Safety Management System Toolkit, which has been adopted by the Airborne Law Enforcement Association and is available at: www.alea.org/public/safety/SMS-Toolkit.pdf. It can also by accessed at: www.ihst.org. This toolkit will help organizations understand the fundamentals of an SMS and serve as a guide to set up an SMS tailored for their size and mission. It identifies 11 core attributes that will assist in ensuring an SMS is effective for any organization. The core attributes of the IHST’s SMS are:
1)    SMS Management Plan
2)    Safety Promotion
3)    Document and Data Information Management
4)    Hazard Identification and Risk Management
5)    Occurrence and Hazard Reporting
6)    Occurrence Investigation and Analysis
7)    Safety Assurance Oversight Programs
8)    Safety Management Training Requirements
9)    Management of Changes
10)    Emergency Preparedness and Response
11)    Performance Measurement and Continuous Improvement

As noted by the JHSAT, as well as many other aviation safety studies, implementing a good SMS is fundamental to preventing accidents. Safety features that are designed into aircraft or safety kits that are purchased for installation on aircraft require capital.  Implementing an SMS only requires commitment and good leadership. The lack of an SMS will circumvent all of the safety gained by having the most advanced aircraft and safety options available. Having an SMS will help protect the organization’s investment, make it more efficient and can help compensate for not having the most advanced aircraft and all available safety options. 

Having an SMS will not, by itself, guarantee an organization that it will not have an accident. So why have an SMS? Because it’s smart business, it’s good leadership and, most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. SMS can save lives. Successfully achieving the IHST’s goal of reducing the worldwide helicopter accident rate by 80 per cent by 2016 will result in an estimated 1,700 accidents avoided and 1,100 fatalities and serious injuries prevented.

So, can the JHSIT really reduce the accident rate by 80 per cent?  Not by itself. We need everyone in the industry to get involved and spread the word. Raising our own expectations and standards by insisting on the best safety management practices is required. Please get involved and promote the implementation of the IHST recommendations. Initiatives that have the ability to significantly alter entire industries happen once in a lifetime. Don’t miss your opportunity to help make a difference. Join the IHST at www.ihst.org.

Fred Brisbois is Director, Aviation & Product Safety, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and co-chair, Safety Implementation Team of the International Helicopter Safety Team.

Fred Brisbois to Speak at CHC Safety Summit
p30aFred Brisbois is the director for aviation and product safety for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT.  He is responsible for system safety engineering, fleet support of product safety issues for more than 4,000 aircraft, accident investigations, the Flight Safety Parts Program and safety oversight of flight operations at all Sikorsky facilities. Fred is also co-chair of the JINT Helicopter Safety Implementation Team chartered by the International Helicopter Safety Team.

His education includes a Master of Science in management from Rensselaer’s Hartford Graduate Center and a Bachelor of Professional Aeronautics with a concentration in aviation safety technology (summa cum laude) from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Army helicopter pilot’s course, advanced and senior warrant officer career courses and the University of Southern California’s safety officer course.

Fred became involved in safety as a helicopter pilot in an air cavalry combat unit while serving in Vietnam.  His Army career spanned 25 years, split between active duty and the Army National Guard.  Throughout his Army career, he served as an aviation safety officer from detachment through division levels.  He was also an instructor pilot and maintenance test pilot.  He is a graduate of the Army’s Aviation Medical Department’s medevac course and established medevac operational procedures in Germany and Fort Irwin, CA. After leaving active duty, Fred was a senior system safety engineer on the Peacekeeper (MX) missile program for Martin Marietta responsible for fault tree analyses and system interface analyses.  He has been with Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. for 24 years serving in increasing levels of program, system and operational safety responsibilities.

Fred Brisbois will be speaking at the CHC Safety and Quality Summit 2009. The summit will take place March 30 – April 1, 2009 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver in Vancouver, BC. For more information you can go to


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