Commercial, Public Service, Regulatory

IHST: SMS Critical to Reducing Helicopter Accidents

By By Dale Smith | January 1, 2011

Helicopter Association Intl (HAI), the Intl Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) and other industry leaders have identified safety management systems (SMS) as a key tool in the effort to reduce helicopter accidents 80 percent by 2016.

Without setting into the statistics, there are plenty of places to read the raw numbers, but let’s just start by agreeing that the helicopter industry’s safety record leaves lots of room for improvement. In 2007 it reached a level where the helicopter industry collectively said, “enough is enough.” So representatives from HAI, the American Helicopter Society (AHS), manufacturers, operators and others joined together to create IHST.

“The IHST is a worldwide effort to reduce helicopter accidents by 80 percent in 10 years,” said Mark Liptak, AVP-200, aerospace engineer, FAA Office of Aircraft Accident and Prevention and past IHST program director.
“The background of the program was several high-profile Part 121 commercial airplane accidents back in the mid-90’s got a team of regulators, manufacturers, operators, crash investigators—major stakeholders from across the commercial transport community—together to establish the Commercial Aviation Safety Team. Their goal was to put a process together that would drop airline fatality numbers by 80 percent over 10 years. They were very successful.”


“We took their basic process and adopted it for helicopters,” he added. “We saw a great strength in directly analyzing accident reports, which is what we have done.”

Liptak said that IHST’s analysis has shown which types of missions contribute to how many accidents per year. “We typically see the personal/private mission, the instructional mission and emergency medical services (EMS) as the top three on an annual basis,” he said. “The top problem areas are: pilot judgment and action and the presumed inadequate safety management systems approach.”

Safety Management Systems

IHST’s accident analysis has shown that a leading contributor to pilot judgment and pilot action type accidents can be linked back to an apparent lack of SMS being used by many of the smaller to medium-sized helicopter operators.

“We believe that implementing a safety management system helps dramatically improve aeronautical decision-making. It puts a process in place to help pilots identify risks and make decisions on how to mitigate those risks before flying,” explained Mark Schilling, acting FAA Rotorcraft Directorate manager. “So when we say SMS, if you implement one, you can cover a multitude of areas that our data has shown as leading causal factors for accidents.”

Schilling said that an SMS entails having written procedural practices, safety practices and guidelines for improving the decision-making process. “When you look at it, a company has to actively manage its payroll, accounts receivable, maintenance and marketing plans—an SMS is a way to really actively manage the safety component of an operation,” he said. “Once you have it operating efficiently, it will let you see where some of your areas of improvement are relative to your company’s training, operations, maintenance practices.”
While the written procedures are big parts of the SMS equation, they’re not the only element. “A good SMS is made up of four parts,” said Don Baldwin, CEO and founder of Baldwin Aviation. “The first is the policy. That’s the forms, procedures, operating manuals, maintenance manuals, emergency response plan and any policy letters or directives from senior management.”

Second, he continued, “is risk management—that includes the identification of hazards and outlining the safety practices for taking action to mitigate those items. Third is safety assurance. This is basically tracking your data and understanding what it means through some type of validation system. It can be simple monthly safety reports or sophisticated computer-based systems,” he said. “The forth is promotion—promoting the safety culture within the organization, which includes actively sharing safety information and increased safety training.”

“Once an SMS is set up and operating it ought to allow the operator to address the areas they need improvement in,” Liptak said. “That’s the goal. It needs to be the tool for getting critical information back to management on what they need to do to improve their operation’s safety practices. But identifying the specifics for each operation can be challenging.”

The reason is pretty obvious: unlike a fixed-wing operator who pretty much flies the same routes all the time, the typical commercial helicopter pilot has to react to ever-changing situations. “Look at the helicopter industry, there are so many types of missions—each one with its own challenges,” Baldwin said. “The operator has to address each one and develop their best standards and practices for each of them. That can be challenging for smaller operators in particular.”

Another aspect of an SMS that can be particularly challenging is allowing flight crews or maintenance technicians to admit they made a mistake without fear of punishment. “If you have people working for you that feel they can come to you and say they think there’s an unsafe condition here—we need to do something about it,” Liptak said. “Or for pilots, when they are out flying they make a decision—a bad decision—they live through it but they made a mistake and can share it with the rest of the company before someone else makes the same mistake. That’s a good safety culture—you can report it and it will be non-punitive.”

IHST Program Director Sue Gardner, AFS-800, said that the organization has “spoken to companies who have union pilots and it’s always been a significant hurdle to overcome because often times there is not great trust. Management needs to take the lead and make it clear that there is a policy in place. A key component of an effective SMS is that it starts at the top, with the president of the company and their support of the ‘safety culture.’ If the trust is misused it will be disastrous to the program.”

Schilling cautioned that trust and the non-punitive reporting system is a two-way street. “It doesn’t mean it’s a free pass to be willfully dangerous with the operation. [An employee’s] willful disregard for established rules and policies is not something covered under the idea.”

With a Little Help

It’s no question that developing and implementing a safety management system is a daunting task for most helicopter operators. You’re working hard enough just trying to make ends meet every month. But the good news is you don’t have to go it alone.

With a lot of help from HAI and industry partners, IHST has developed a series of “Toolkits” available through “It can be pretty costly to develop an SMS. So we figured the best way to reach the smaller operator was to create a generic SMS toolkit that can be tailored and scaled to fit anything from a one-ship operation up to a large multi-ship operation—and give it all free of charge,” Liptak said.
“If you use the toolkit with some of our other available services and outreach efforts, you can make great headway on your own with minimal financial impact,” he added.” We’re on our second SMS toolkit revision now—it’s been very popular. Exxon Mobil has accepted it for use in many of their operations. That’s a big gold star for us.”

“Part of the package is a risk management toolkit,” Gardner said. “It gives you the processes to assess the risks for different areas of your operation. In addition, HAI has put together a video on how to use the IHST toolkits. That’s been very helpful in getting operators started.”

“What we’re finding is that most operators have components of a good SMS already built into their business practices already,” Gardner continued. “The toolkit lets you see where to fill the gaps in your overall SMS process. It also gives you more effective tools for managing your ongoing safety efforts.”

IHST’s SMS toolkit isn’t the only thing that the industry is offering up to help operators fly safer. Gardner said that an excellent, and oft-underutilized source for help, is an operator’s local FSDO. “The FSDO works with the FAA Safety Team, a group that works across the country distributing information, while working with FAA Safety Counselors in the helicopter industry to put on presentations on whatever the problems are pilots face in a particular area of the country,” she said. “Our goal is to get the right safety messages and information to the individual pilots, flight instructors and operators.”

“Our FAAST team is working jointly with the HAI to host specific safety seminars around the country to target some of the key implementation strategies that we are putting in place to improve helicopter safety,” she said. “The schedule of these seminars will be on the website.”

Credit Where Credit is Due

While ultimately creating a safer environment for pilots and technicians is reason enough to implement an SMS in your operation, there’s an added incentive—it can really help you attract new business. In fact, in a growing number of instances an SMS-type program is becoming mandatory.

“More and more industries are requiring a safety management system to be implemented for a company to even be able to bid on a new contract,” Baldwin said. SMS “brings to the table a much more structured organization from the standpoint of the internal management and day-to-day running of the operation,” he added.

“The fact that you are now looking for hazards and working to essentially prevent dangerous or hazardous situations—you are looking to correct them before they contribute to an accident—is a huge differentiator today,” Baldwin said. “In a growing number of situations, if you don’t have it you go to the bottom of the list—operators with an SMS get priority over those who don’t. It provides more proof that the operator meets industry developed safety standards.”

Baldwin explained that one of his company’s clients, Mountain West Helicopters, does a lot of work for the U.S. Forest Service and was required to have an SMS in place to even bid on a government contract. “It’s the same thing with the oil and gas industries, movie industry—most industries today,” he said. “Any operator with an SMS has a clear competitive advantage.”

HAI is working to kick up that recognition even further by developing an SMS Accreditation program. “We work with the HAI board of directors and they are definitely pursuing that direction,” explained Al Major II, director of aircraft services for Bonneville Power Administration and chairman, HAI Safety Committee. “We are in agreement in principle with IS-BAO to use their accreditation program as the core for our program.”

As beneficial as it is, an SMS isn’t the same as accreditation. “Assuming it ends up being something analogous to the IS-BAO, it gives the operator a really hard look at their processes, procedures and safety management—whether or not it’s up to speed with the industry and their peers,” he said. “It’s a good stepping stone for what IHST is trying to accomplish now [80 percent accident reduction]. If people become accredited it shows they’ve taken this hard look and made some changes—they operate in a safe and efficient manner.”
“I hope that all operators decide to embrace it,” Major added. “I believe that if they do it will ultimately help result in lowering our accident rates.”

SMS Mandate?

The question that’s on everyone’s mind now is, if and when the FAA and ICAO will mandate SMS-type programs? The jury is still out on that one. Everyone Rotor & Wing talked to for this story feels strongly that safety management systems will become mandated in the next couple of years. FAA, IHST, HAI and all their industry partners realize that implementing an SMS, even a basic one, can be costly.

And while no one wants to see any administrative costs go up, especially in today’s economy, its many benefits well outweigh the cost. Or as one operator put it: “If you think an SMS is expensive, try paying for an accident.”

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