Collaborate and Adapt

HeliOffshore Pools Resources for Innovative Safety Research
Rick Adams
March 15, 2017
By Rick Adams
The helicopter industry is in “survival mode,” according to some observers, buffeted by depressed oil prices and fatal accidents that have grounded key aircraft in the fleet. The natural expectation of tough economic times is that helicopter operators might shirk on safety measures and productivity could suffer as employees fear a redundancy notice.


Instead, the 30-month-old association, HeliOffshore (https://helioffshore.org/), has initiated multiple projects aimed at improving safety. “Members have adopted a plan to undertake a fundamental review that will enhance the reliability and resilience of the offshore fleet and the systems that support it – both human and machine,” said Bill Chiles, HeliOffshore chairman and former CEO of Bristow Group.

A key to their approach is collaboration. “When we pool our efforts it’s incredibly affordable. It allows work like this to happen. It’s a way of getting stuff done despite the pressures,” said Gretchen Haskins, HeliOffshore CEO. “It’s the kind of a thing that any one organization would struggle to do by themselves, but together it makes sense.”

“The projects we’re doing have grown rather than reduced and are more results and outcome-focused,” she added.

Now 100+ members strong, the group has created a collaborative framework that focuses on carefully selected priorities. It’s four “workstreams” include system reliability and resilience, operational effectiveness, safety enablers and survivability. Its safety strategy attempts to match with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) action plan.

One success story which was fast-tracked, starting in 2016, will be implemented by the end of this year: a software change to helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems (HTAWS). How is that a big deal? Even simple changes to a software algorithm require regulatory approval, which is normally an excruciatingly slow process, which takes place only after manufacturers and operators have tested and validated the proposed changes.

The software code change was evaluated in an Airbus flight simulator in Aberdeen, Scotland, and demonstrated that a pilot could gain up to 24 seconds of digital warning time – that’s huge in creating a decision-window margin when an aircraft is in danger of striking obstacles or controlled flight into water (the cause of nearly one of every five accidents). “Lives will be saved because of this,” Haskins said.

HeliOffshore is also midway through a pioneering study which attempts to determine what visual cues the pilot uses to handle various flying tasks in an automated cockpit in an IFR environment. It could lead to changes in cockpit design, procedures and crew resource management (CRM) training. The study uses special head-scan and eye-tracking glasses in an Indra full-flight simulator, also in Aberdeen. “We’re looking at what both guys do as a joint crew, the pilot flying and the pilot not flying,” said researcher Dr. Steve Jarvis of human factors specialists Jarvis Bagshaw. “What you look at is driven by what you’re trying to achieve.”

Dozens of pilots from Bond, Bristow and CHC Helicopters are participating in the research. “The validity of the work is high,” said Jarvis. “These are professional crews in a high-fidelity environment.”

In Phase 2, currently underway and targeted for completion by year-end, crews will be presented with abnormal and emergency scenarios, providing a comparison for what information pilots focus on when things go awry. Among the data analyses is how older pilots scan versus the younger generation and more experienced pilots (over 1,000 flight hours) versus less experienced.

The U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch determined that, in a Super Puma crash off Shetland in 2013, flight instruments “were not monitored effectively.” The AAIB noted that neither pilot had received training in developing and maintaining effective instrument scan techniques for the instrument displays (there was no requirement to do so at the time).

“It’s a strange dichotomy. I would say this is the hardest time many people have ever faced; it’s very challenging. At the same time, it strengthens peoples’ resolve and they get more connected to why safety matters and that they have to get it right,” said Haskins. “I see an ongoing commitment. It doesn’t mean we aren’t completely cognizant that its really tough out there. It’s about genuinely making a difference to safety on the front line.”


Rick Adams is chief perspective officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy in the south of France, and is the editor of ICAO Journal.


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