Recently released numbers show that the global helicopter industry will be far short of its self-assigned, highly ambitious goal of cutting the number of accidents by 80 percent over the 2006-2016 period, if current safety trends continue. Therefore, civil aviation authorities are striving to find new ways to reach out to pilots and operators, as well as manufacturers, to improve a relatively worrying situation. Means include new rules but also easy-to-read leaflets. Meanwhile, manufacturers are introducing new design processes and equipment to do their share of the effort, it appeared at the annual Rotorcraft Symposium the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) organized in December in Cologne, Germany.
Bob Sheffield, a member of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) and AgustaWestland’s senior advisor for safety and fleet operational improvement, said that some regions are going the wrong way in terms of helicopter accident statistics. The global trend is a slightly declining number of accidents per 100,000 flight hours. At 5.7, it is still too high to leave room for reaching the target of 1.9 (accidents per 100,000 hours) in 2016 set by the IHST. These numbers are badly influenced by three regions—South America, Asia and Oceania. There, the trends are upward.
Those regions where the accident trends are downward are Europe, North America (but both are still short of the reduction goal) and Africa. So was the 80 percent goal over-ambitious? “It was rather a federating aspiration, coinciding with the creation of the IHST,” Michel Masson, EASA safety action coordinator, secretary of the European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST) and co-chair of the European Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (EHSAT), told Rotor & Wing. He insisted the effort is likely to be carried on after 2016, especially if the goal is not attained.
Some countries, such as Spain and Sweden, are to regulate search and rescue operations.
The EHSAT and the European Helicopter Safety Implementation Team (EHSIT) are part of the EHEST, itself the European chapter of the IHST. The causes of these not-so-good safety trends are hard to find. “Is the economic downturn an explanation for the hiccup we see on the graph from 2008?” asked John Steel, a representative of the Irish Aviation Authority and co-chair of the EHSIT. His team is still analyzing this possibility. Another possible explanation is a discrepancy between training and technology—a Robinson R66 is equipped with a glass cockpit and a Fadec, Steel underscored.
“Helicopters are safe but some are not operated as safely as they could be; and we know how to make flying on a helicopter much safer,” Sheffield stated. Some passengers may disagree with the first part of the statement. “Over the 1992-2009 period, 31 percent of offshore accident causes were technical,” according to Olivier Claeys, head of aviation at Total. The oil company simply wants helicopter transport to be as safe as airlines.
Not all types of operations appear the same way in safety statistics. For example, in the U.S., private, training and crop-dusting flights are the top three numbers of accidents. Several speakers, however, noted that collecting data is challenging. It has been impossible, for instance, for the EHEST to correlate crashes to numbers of landings.
Dave Howson, a research project manager at the UK civil aviation administration (UK CAA), pointed at a cruel lack of contextual information. He was referring to annual flying hours by type of operation and aircraft type, flight time distribution by flight phase, as well as pilot flying experience and age. “If we had started collecting when the EHEST was launched in 2006, we would have five-plus years of good data by now!” he complained.
Most accidents involve Part 27 (lighter) helicopters, Howson noted. Yet, Part 29 (heavier) helicopters are included in the statistics. “Do they cloud the picture?” Howson asked. Not a lot, it appears from his work. He studied Part 27-only accidents over the 2000-2010 period. The same two causes keep the top spots—pilot judgment and action, and safety management. The main difference is maintenance—as a cause, it appears five ranks higher in the Part 27 focus.
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