The Compelling World of Helicopters, Where Safety is at the Forefront

By T. Bella Dinh-Zarr

I love helicopters!

I have a great appreciation for the training and skill it takes to fly a helicopter. Rotorcraft are vital to our transportation system; they have remarkable agility and go where no other transport vehicles can go. They often serve the common good and help our economy by providing medical care, fighting fires, assisting law enforcement, serving as “aerial cranes” in construction, transporting workers to inaccessible locations, and generally doing work that no other vehicles can do.

Helicopters have personal significance for me, too. Before I was born, an American-trained Choctaw CH-34 pilot saved my parents and three older brothers by flying them to safety during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. One of those brothers, now a surgeon, has been able to help traffic crash victims, thanks to the emergency medical helicopters that transport him to those who are injured far from his Level 1 trauma center.

Vice Chairman (center, in blue) and Aviation Safety investigators and staff, from L-R, Ralph Hicks, Jeff Kennedy, Jim Silliman, Van McKenny, Chihoon Shin, and Clint Johnson.
Vice Chairman (center, in blue) and Aviation Safety investigators and staff, from L-R, Ralph Hicks, Jeff Kennedy, Jim Silliman, Van McKenny, Chihoon Shin, and Clint Johnson.

So, with that background, I was particularly excited to attend my first HAI Heli-Expo, the world’s largest helicopter conference and exposition. An annual event sponsored by the Helicopter Association International (HAI), this year’s event took place in Louisville, Kentucky, and was attended by nearly 20,000 owner-operators, pilots, mechanics, manufacturers, and helicopter vendors. A key focus of the event, as usual, was safety.

I came to this Heli-Expo to learn. I wanted to know about the safety issues and concerns for the industry. I also came with a message from NTSB to the helicopter community: Thank you for your strong efforts to improve rotorcraft safety, and let’s continue to work together to address important safety issues.

At the Safety Symposium prior to the official start of the conference, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and members of the International Helicopter Safety Team/US Helicopter Safety Team (IHST/USHST) discussed crash rates and how safety affects the bottom line. While helicopter safety is not a standalone issue this year on NTSB’s “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety improvements, I reminded folks that helicopter safety is still a key component of many of our Most Wanted List issues, such as recorders, impairment, fatigue, distraction, and occupant protection.

In 2015, the NTSB investigated 127 U.S.-registered helicopter accidents in the United States, and 18 of them were fatal (resulting in the deaths of 29 people). Nine of those fatalities came from helicopter air ambulance (HAA)/helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS).

As we can all agree, any fatality is one too many.

I am pleased that this “vision zero” is also the driving theme of the IHST/USHST, which announced a goal of working (for as long as it takes) to achieve zero helicopter accidents, with a particular focus on fatal accidents. The HAI is also advancing safety through its new safety accreditation program certifying safety programs from different types of helicopter operations and by working with academia under a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a flight data monitoring program that assesses data from the industry to identify trends and make safety improvements. With all these efforts underway, the industry will take a giant leap toward improved safety.

I am confident that helicopter safety will continue to get better and better, with the leadership of industry groups like HAI and the voluntary efforts of owner-operators to implement safety improvements, even before federal regulations have passed.

Take, for example, the flight training school owner-operator I met from Colorado. In our Safety Symposium session, he talked about proactively implementing safety management systems and risk assessment programs, investing in high-quality scenario-based simulator training for pilots-in-training, and implementing flight data monitoring systems in all of his helicopters. He also changed the flight pattern to enable safer landings and takeoffs around his school. While this owner-operator focused on safety because it was the right thing to do, and despite expecting to lose money, he saw a financial return in many areas, such as insurance savings, earned media, employee retention, and student simulator rental. Perhaps, most importantly, he lowered the risk of accidents and injuries to his instructors, pilots-in-training, and passengers.

Vice Chairman Speaking to Membership BreakfastIt is inspiring to hear from hardworking business owners that safety improvements can – and should – be made, and that, in the end, such initiatives save both lives and money.

The lifesaving improvements we talked about at Heli-Expo are all recommendations the NTSB has made over the years to the helicopter industry, most recently to public and HAA/HEMS-category helicopters.

During the conference, we discussed the importance of recorder technology in improving safety. Over the last decade, the NTSB has made more than 30 recommendations to the FAA and industry requiring the installation of crash-resistant flight recorder systems on all newly manufactured helicopters not already equipped with a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder. “Expand Use of Recorders to Enhance Transportation Safety” is on our 2016 Most Wanted List. Had recorders been installed in many of the tragic crashes we have seen in recent years, the industry might have had more information and data about how and why accidents happened.

I was also proud to see the presentations given by our Aviation Safety team regarding another of our very important recommendations: requiring crashworthy fuel tanks in all newly manufactured helicopters – not just those designed before 1994, when the original standard was issued by the FAA. Those who survive accidents should not have to succumb to post-crash fires, a tragedy we have seen in our investigations, such as the HAA/EMS crash in Wichita Falls, Texas, in October 2014, and the July 2015 accident in Frisco, Colorado.

Our NTSB aviation experts reminded the industry not to wait for regulators to issue a mandate but to aggressively work with equipment manufacturers to identify retrofits or improvements that could reduce the possibility of post-crash fires. We know this is not an inexpensive or easy change, but we also know that, in the end, it will save lives and prevent injuries.

Additionally, one of our investigators presented two accident case studies that involved complete loss of engine power, which demonstrated the need for the pilot to enter an autorotation within 2 seconds. The NTSB has issued recommendations on the proper technique for performing autorotations, and we were pleased to hear that the FAA recently announced it has added an addendum to its Helicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083) that addresses our concerns.

Vice Chairman with Louisville, KY, Mayor Greg Fischer (far left) and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (third from left) at expo.
Vice Chairman with Louisville, KY, Mayor Greg Fischer (far left) and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (third from left) at expo.

Before leaving Heli-Expo, I had the privilege of addressing the general membership of HAI, alongside the Governor of Kentucky and the Mayor of Louisville. I thanked helicopter operators for their efforts in implementing NTSB’s safety recommendations and I applauded their unique talents and their contribution to our communities, our nation, and our world. I also was honored to take a tour of the expo floor, where I was impressed by the extraordinary display of helicopter ingenuity and the commitment to continual improvement through new technologies and services offered.

Helicopters make a positive difference in our world. I left the conference with even more admiration for the helicopter community’s passion for their work and their dedication to safety.

I look forward to working with them to keep everyone who flies in rotorcraft – whether as a pilot or a passenger – safe and sound.

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