Going Above and Beyond in Helicopter Safety

By Christopher Hart, Acting Chairman

Acting Chairman Hart with the New Mexico State Police Helicopter SquadronHelicopters are amazingly unique and versatile aircraft. They need no runways to take off or land. They can hover over a crime scene. They can pick up a crash victim from a remote accident site when minutes count. They can fly low and slow for visual inspection of pipelines, or set a crew down on a rooftop or an oil rig.

And because helicopters are so unique, they encounter different safety issues than fixed-wing aircraft.

Helicopter safety is a big issue for the NTSB. The use of helicopters in this country is increasing rapidly, and helicopter safety efforts have to keep pace.

That’s why I was pleased to see a helicopter operator learn from experience, albeit tragic experience, and make safety a priority.

On June 9, 2009, a New Mexico State Police Helicopter crashednear Santa Fe, New Mexico. The NTSB investigated the crash and made three recommendations to the New Mexico State Police to help prevent a recurrence.

But the New Mexico State Police didn’t just focus on our recommendations. I found out why when last month, I met members of the New Mexico State Special Operation Aircraft Section who lost a fellow officer in the accident.

I was eager to learn what progress had been made since we issued our accident report. But one statement that stood out in conversations with officers was that my visit “brought a sense of closure to some very tough times after losing a brother.”

The New Mexico State Police Helicopter Squadron has not forgotten their fallen officer. Instead, since the accident the squadron has put considerable effort into improving its safety culture.

Following the accident, the NTSB recommended that the New Mexico State Police:

  • Bring its aviation section policies and operations into conformance with industry standards, such as those established by the Airborne Law Enforcement Association
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive fatigue management program for the New Mexico State Police (NMSP) aviation section pilots
  • Revise or reinforce New Mexico State Police (NMSP) search and rescue (SAR) policies to ensure direct communication between NMSP aviation units and SAR ground teams and field personnel during a SAR mission

In addition to taking action on these recommendations, the squadron also pursued other safety enhancements, including:

  • personal locater beacons for each crew member,
  • spider tracks upgrade,
  • Garmin pilot pro used with iPad,
  • flight vests with signaling devices and survival gear,
  • environmental equipment upgrade,
  • survival kits,
  • enhanced flight following with New Mexico State Police districts,
  • flight supervision/coordination between commanders,
  • terrain avoidance upgrade,
  • ALEA and other formal safety training, and
  • Enhanced mission planning and detailed mission briefing.

And the squadron didn’t stop there; they also implemented:

  • new risk management procedures,
  • crew endurance/management,
  • an aviation safety training program,
  • aircraft section standard operating procedures,
  • tactical flight officer program, and
  • improved coordination with ground assets.

After an accident, a strong response like the New Mexico State Police’s helps to prevent a recurrence. And by learning from the robust measures that the New Mexico State Police has put in place, others can hope to avoid another tragic loss.

Safety is more than showing up or speaking up. It is also about taking steps that may save a life before a fatality happens.

If you work in a helicopter operation, how is your safety culture? What improvements can you make?

Don’t wait to lose one of yours. Learn from the New Mexico tragedy and carefully consider today the steps that could improve your safety culture to ensure a safer mission now and in the future.

One thought on “Going Above and Beyond in Helicopter Safety”

  1. This plus AOPA “Rescue Gone Wrong” provide a case study for SAR pilots about “mission mindset”, with some good coming out of tragedy. Thank you for posting this.

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