When international rotorcraft leaders gather this month in Montreal for the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium, they cannot help but spend a great deal of the four-day meeting talking about the role that the individual plays in advancing or holding back rotorcraft safety.
Organized by the American Helicopter Society and its Montreal chapter, the meeting's purpose is to identify underlying accident causal factors and the risk of their occurrence, then begin to develop strategies for mitigating them. The common wisdom is that 75--80 percent of helicopter accidents involve, in whole or in part, pilot error. Logically, then, the discussion must focus on why men and women, many of who are well trained and experienced, continue to crash rotorcraft at an unacceptably high rate. Once those talks begins in earnest, their focus should shift.
Clearly, in many cases the discussion will conclude with sad agreement: "Sure that helicopter crashed. How could it not?" There a far too many cases in which pilots make poor decisions that get them into situations for which they are not trained or experienced, and there are far too many cases in which pilots just do stupid things. For this and a lot of other reasons, I suspect, too many safety investigations still end with "Pilot Error" stamped on the file. However, the inevitable answer to genuinely in-depth examinations of why skilled, veteran pilots crash helicopters in many cases will be different. Given the circumstances and the emergency conditions, the conclusion often will be "That helicopter shouldn't have crashed. Those people shouldn't have died." The next questions become, "Then why? What other links contributed to that chain of events." When that happens, a new degree of safety pursuit begins, one that truly considers the role that aircraft and component design, maintenance, operational control and management play in helping a pilot avoid a deadly predicament fly right into one.
This month, we offer some grist for the talks in Montreal. Douglas W. Nelms reports on the various aspects of the human factors that play a role in rotorcraft safety and what is being done to understand and manage them better. Simon Roper, in the first of a series of articles for Helicopter Training, shares what led him to take the first steps in learning to fly rotorcraft safely. Larry Mattiello offers a unique perspective on what drives safety gains in the aviation industry as well as his assessment of what he and many others see as glaring shortcomings in training of helicopter pilots (and their bosses). If the Montreal meeting succeeds, we'll be discussing these subjects often in coming months.