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Editor’s Notebook: A Team Effort

By James T. McKenna | February 1, 2008

I ’ve been remiss. For nearly two and a half years, Rotor & Wing has been reporting on the International Helicopter Safety Team and its efforts to slash the helicopter accident rate 80 percent by 2016. R&W has been the source of information on that team since its inception. We have reported more frequently and in greater depth on it than any competing publication — on the order of 12 times more.

That sounds boastful. But I say it for two reasons. One is a bit self-serving. There are some folks that seem to consider R&W lacking in its coverage of the International Helicopter Safety Team. The other reason is to convey just how important I consider that team and its work.

The safety team’s efforts could not have come as far or as fast without major contributions from every player.

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The team’s efforts constitute the single most important initiative for the rotorcraft industry. Now, some might say the most pressing matter is the need to secure funding for advanced research that will allow rotorcraft to fly faster and operate more efficiently. Others might say helicopters must win greater acceptance and recognition from government officials and the public. But neither will happen unless the International Helicopter Safety Team succeeds.

Unless rotorcraft become significantly safer — and, consequently, more reliable and less expensive to fly — they and we will be consigned to a small and shrinking transportation niche. No investment or public acceptance will come without major safety gains.

Where I have been remiss in our past reporting has been in properly crediting the work of that team.

The team was set up in late 2005 through the hard work of the American Helicopter Society International. AHS convened the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium that year in Montreal and helped persuade nearly 300 industry representatives to attend. Their participation gave the consensus goal, that 80 target, credibility when some frankly were lukewarm to the effort.

Shortly after that meeting, the leadership at the Helicopter Assn International changed; its new president, Matt Zuccaro, was a wholehearted supporter of the safety team. Also, the head of the U.S. FAA’s Rotorcraft Directorate, Dave Downey, fully embraced the effort.

These were key developments.

The accident-reduction effort cannot succeed unless helicopter operators believe it important enough to invest their money and time. That simply would never happen without the support and full participation of HAI.

The effort also is premised on regulators giving industry the latitude to come up with and implement solutions to safety problems without enacting new government rules. That wouldn’t happen without buy-in from the FAA.

For those reasons, our reporting has tended to focus on the HAI and FAA’s role in the safety team’s efforts.

But many individuals have done the "grunt work" of advancing those efforts. They’ve come from numerous companies and organizations. Big helicopter operators, like those flying offshore support, have contributed much. Many of the supporting companies, however, are members of AHS (as are many of the individual participants).

Anyone can say they support the International Helicopter Safety Team. These companies have very clearly put their money where their mouths are. That includes the AHS member companies, who through the solicitation and cajoling of that society’s leaders and staff have contributed money for administrative support of the team’s work and donated portions of their employees’ time and travel budgets to perform that work.

Clearly, helicopter manufacturers and operators have an ulterior motive. Major customers, many from the oil and gas and the emergency medical services communities, have told them they want safer, more capable aircraft, and that they won’t do business with those who can’t provide that. I don’t believe that diminishes their goal.

The safety team, which is to say the companies, organizations, and individuals that comprise it, have spent the past two years dissecting helicopter accidents to identify the most pressing safety problems. More of that analysis lies ahead. At the same time, members are working on means of eliminating the problems identified to date. The vast majority of that work has been done with donated time and money.

Our future rests in the hands of that safety team, and its members all merit our thanks and praise.

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