The Safety of Vertical Flight

By Vice Chairman Christopher A. Hart

Helicopter taking off in the sunsetLast week, my fellow Board Members and I unveiled the 2014 NTSB Most Wanted List of critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives. This list of ten issues represents our advocacy priorities for the coming year. One of those priorities is to Address the Unique Characteristics of Helicopter Operations. In the past ten years, nearly 1,500 accidents have occurred involving helicopters used as air ambulances, for search and rescue missions and for commercial helicopter operations such as tour flights. During that same time, the NTSB issued over 100 safety recommendations on helicopter-specific issues.

NTSB recommended practices include the need for operators to develop and implement safety management systems that include sound risk management practices and access to training that includes realistic scenarios involving inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions and autorotation. In addition, crash-resistant flight recorder systems can assist investigators in determining what went wrong when an accident does occur. In October 2010, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which responded to NTSB recommendations for equipment requirements, pilot training, and alternate airport weather minimums. Unfortunately, the NPRM did not address flight recorders, safety management systems, autopilots for single-pilot operations, and night vision imaging systems.

The NTSB believes that improving the safety of helicopter operations will require increased awareness among, and action by, key stakeholders such as the helicopter manufacturers, operators, training and regulatory agencies. In 2004, as a way to share industry best practices and coordinate industry responses to safety recommendations and requirements, the FAA and industry established the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) Safety Task Force. This effort led to many safety improvements, but ceased meeting shortly before the issuance of the FAA’s NPRM. Last week, I was pleased to attend a meeting in which stakeholders involved in the original HEMS Safety Task Force met to address delays in the issuance of the final rule and current helicopter industry safety initiatives.

Next month, I will join Chairman Hersman, Member Sumwalt and staff from the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, including John DeLisi, Clint Johnson, Kristi Dunks, Aaron Sauer, Jim Silliman, Van McKenny, and Patrick Jones, at the 2014 HAI HELI‑EXPO in Anaheim, California to continue the NTSB’s efforts to increase awareness. More than 20,000 industry professionals will convene at this event to share ways to enhance helicopter safety. In a special session on February 24, the NTSB will present information on our recent helicopter accident investigations and share lessons learned and recommendations related to helicopter maintenance, pilot training/simulators, and flight recorders.

There is no simple solution for reducing helicopter accidents but safety improvements to address helicopter operations have the potential to mitigate risk to thousands of pilots and passengers each year.

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