Tag Archives: helicopter safety

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.

Public Helicopter Operations: Act Before an Accident

A helicopter pilot died disoriented and confused in Alaska on March 30, 2013.

He was no novice; in fact, he was flying a search-and-rescue mission for the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS). But when he set out – highly motivated to save the life of a stranded snowmobiler – he set in motion a chain of events that ended in three deaths: His own, the snowmobiler’s, and that of an Alaska State Trooper serving as an observer.

Picture of Alaska Department of Public Safety HelicopterThe pilot was qualified to fly search and rescue missions in visual meteorological conditions but not instrument meteorological conditions in the accident helicopter. Ultimately he found himself in instrument meteorological conditions, in a helicopter that was neither equipped nor certified for instrument flight rules. Minutes after picking up the stranded snowmobiler, he became spatially disoriented, lost control of the helicopter and crashed.

The pilot and the trooper who died in this crash died in the service of others. They routinely shouldered risk in the line of duty to enhance the safety of their fellow Alaskans. But risks that should have been weighed systematically and objectively were assessed subjectively and individually. The pilot’s training was not in line with the conditions of his mission. His flight observer was not a trained tactical flight officer who could have better assisted with aeronautical tasks. The Alaska DPS was not using formal flight-dispatch and flight-following procedures that included up-to-date weather information and assistance with risk-assessment decisions.

During the NTSB’s accident investigation, even before we issued our final report, the Alaska DPS responded to the lessons that were coming to light and implemented a number of safety improvements. All Alaska DPS pilots who fly the type of helicopter involved in this accident were required to receive training in how to safely escape from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions; formal risk assessments were required before any helicopter missions are initiated; and a formal tactical flight officer training program was developed. At the time the NTSB report was issued, flight-tracking equipment was installed in 34 of the 42 aircraft in the Alaska DPS fleet, with plans to soon have this equipment installed in the entire Alaska DPS aircraft fleet. Finally, organizations within the Alaska DPS were assigned responsibility for using this equipment to perform flight following for all Alaska DPS aircraft flying missions.

Many of the recommendations that the NTSB made in the accident report related to sharing the lessons of the Talkeetna accident beyond the state of Alaska. Why? The Alaska DPS moved admirably and with great purpose after it experienced the accident. Yet the Talkeetna accident had many commonalities with crashes of Maryland State Police and New Mexico State Police helicopters in 2008 and 2009 respectively. And public helicopter operations accidents are by no means limited to law enforcement. We also investigated the 2010 collision of a California Department of Fish and Game helicopter with power lines.

As in the case of the Alaska DPS, in many cases, the states in which these accidents occurred have learned from their mistakes, and have raised the bar for safety in their public helicopter operations.

But states with public helicopter operations are not learning from each other. In the Talkeetna accident, we recommended that 44 additional states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia familiarize their public helicopter operators with the lessons of all three accidents.

Substitute the name of your state for “Alaska” in the first line of this article. Then ask yourself what your state is doing to guarantee the safety of its public helicopter operations, with the most recent NTSB recommendations in mind.

If you work in public helicopter operations, the odds are that there are NTSB recommendations pending in your state. Have you heard about, or been involved in, favorable actions on those recommendations? If not, reach out to colleagues.

States feeling the budget pinch nevertheless find ways to make changes after lives are lost. But actions now may save lives instead.

Many of those who are involved in public helicopter operations put their lives on the line in the service of others. These NTSB recommendations are intended to prevent extra, unnecessary risk to the brave men and women who do so, and their passengers.

Earlier NTSB reports on public helicopter operations are also available at NTSB.gov.

HELI-EXPO 2014: Engage in the Future of VERTICAL FLIGHT

By Christopher A. Hart

NTSB Board Member Hart at Heli Expo 2014

As a fixed-wing pilot, I am fascinated by the similarities and differences regarding the challenges and issues faced by fixed-wing pilots and helicopter pilots.  That’s why I thoroughly enjoyed introducing the session yesterday entitled NTSB: Lessons Learned from Helicopter Accidents at the 2014 Heli-Expo in Anaheim.  In this session, NTSB Air Safety Investigators presented findings, conclusions, and recommendations – based upon several helicopter accidents – regarding the need for improved helicopter maintenance and maintenance inspection procedures; the importance of better pilot training, especially regarding autorotation procedures; and the importance of flight data recorders in helicopters, not only for improving safety in general but also for enhancing our ability as investigators to determine the causes of crashes. The panels included industry experts who shared their own thoughts and experiences regarding these issues.

Immediately after the Lessons Learned session, I also had the opportunity to participate in HAI’s launch of its Land & LIVE project.  Every pilot expects to land safely at his or her final destination, but when, for whatever reason, reaching the final destination becomes questionable, helicopter pilots have many more opportunities than fixed-wing pilots to land safely, short of their destination.  Land & LIVE will hopefully encourage the industry to consider it not only acceptable, but desirable, to make a precautionary landing in order to avoid the possibility of a tragic outcome – both for those on the helicopter and for those on the ground.  I am optimistic that this common-sense approach to in-flight problems can improve helicopter safety by reducing the widespread reluctance to make precautionary landings.

Helicopter safety has improved over the years, through the combined efforts of many in the industry, but our Lessons Learned session demonstrated that more needs to be done to continue improving safety in this very important and very unique industry.   

For more information on the NTSB’s efforts to Address the Unique Characteristics of Helicopter Operations, please visit our website: www.ntsb.gov.