by Robert Sumwalt
Every day, hundreds of federal, state, and local governments use helicopters to accomplish missions that are critical for public safety and welfare. Such operations include law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue operations, aerial surveying of natural resources and wildlife, and a host of other public functions.
I had the opportunity to ride along with the Los Angeles Police Department on one of their helicopter missions. During that three-hour flight, they provided air support in apprehending wanted criminals (on two occasions) and in locating suspected stolen goods from the backyard of a house. I was impressed with their professionalism and commitment to their personal safety, as well as maintaining a safe and secure environment for their community. I know those commitments are shared by other public helicopter operators, as well.
Because of the important work performed by public helicopter operations, the NTSB is particularly concerned with their accident record. Between 2004 and 2014, there were over 130 accidents involving public helicopters, resulting in 52 fatalities and nearly as many serious injuries. Tragically, we’ve investigated crashes where the very people who were to be rescued or transported died in the helicopter sent to take care of them. For example, the Board recently deliberated and adopted an accident report involving a helicopter operated by the Alaska Department of Public Services that was sent to rescue a stranded snowmobiler. After locating and picking up the snowmobiler, the helicopter crashed, killing all aboard. While we realize how important this work is, we also recognize that the ultimate goal is to safely bring back everyone who boards that helicopter. Risks need to be properly anticipated and managed.
Unlike privately owned and operated helicopters, public helicopters are not required to adhere to certain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations; their decisions and programs are solely the responsibility of the public operators. To be clear – many, perhaps most – public helicopters are operated to high standards, despite the lack of an FAA requirement to do so. However, NTSB accident investigations have uncovered deadly gaps in operational and maintenance requirements of some public helicopter operators.
These accident investigations have resulted in several safety recommendations intended to seal these gaps. To highlight the critical need to implement these recommendations, the NTSB has added Enhance Public Helicopter Safety to our 2015 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.
We look forward to continuing our work with industry organizations, such as the Airborne Law Enforcement Association and Helicopter Association International, and government agencies alike to further the goal of enhancing public helicopter operations.