After 10 Years, Have We Failed?

By By James T. McKenna | February 1, 2016


Air Methods/Native Air Ambulance AS350 crash

The Dec. 15, 2015, crash of an Air Methods/Native Air Ambulance AS350 is among the latest examples of accidents that taint the public’s image of the helicopter industry
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

The helicopter industry presents several faces to the public.

There is the dramatic and heroic rescue following a natural disaster or man-made catastrophe. A serious highway crash may trigger calls that lead to the spectacle at the scene and on TV of traffic cleared and halted for an air ambulance landing.


We see in the news the dance of helicopters dousing wildfires and the charge of others carrying troops into combat and bearing wounded from the field.

Less appealing for the public is the aggravating noise of birds transporting the rich and famous to their hideaways and hovering tourists over landmarks during pricey flights.

The most troubling face of our industry, however, is the one like the image on this page. It is the image of a crushed, crumpled, possibly burned helicopter on a hillside or street, in a field or a forest, with accompanying details of surviving family and friends of the aircraft’s occupants.

If you track helicopter news on a daily basis, as I have for more than seven years, you will find that the most common reference given to the public through newspapers, television and the Internet is to a helicopter and a crash.

It might be the Dec. 15, 2015, crash depicted here (of an Airbus Helicopters AS350B3 in Superior, Arizona), which killed the pilot and a flight nurse and severely injured a flight paramedic.

It may have been the collision three years ago of an AgustaWestland AW109 in poor visibility with a London office building; that crash killed the pilot and a man on the ground.

US fatal helicopter rate

Industry groups cite data showing no improvement in fatal accident rates. Image courtesy of the FAA

‘Damaging and Dangerous’

It might have been the June 2015 crash of a Bell Helicopter 206B near Ouro Preto in Brazil’s state of Minas Gerais; a crewmember and two passengers died after that crash.

Specific details aside, this is a chronic image.

“We face a massive cultural challenge,” said Sir Christopher Coville, a former chairman of Westland Helicopters Ltd. “The helicopter is viewed as elitist, expensive, environmentally damaging and dangerous.”

The image will not be redeemed at all by a 10-year industry campaign to cut the world’s helicopter accident rate by 80%. The International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) was launched with that goal in late 2005. The 10-year mark is this year, and there is widespread agreement that we will miss the goal.

IHST’s performance will be the subject of some discussion at Heli-Expo 2016, which starts Feb. 29 in Louisville, Kentucky. That discussion will touch on why the international effort fell short of its top-level goal and how it should change in pursuing its new goal of establishing a culture throughout this industry that tolerates no accidents.

US Helicopter accident rate

IHST officials point to data that shows reduced accident rates compared to a 2001 to 2005 baseline. Image courtesy of IHST

This review of IHST’s work and the state of its efforts is based on interviews and conversations with participants and safety experts from its inception in 2005 until the first week of January, as well as observation of IHST meetings and the work of the international Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) on which the helicopter team initiative was based.

It would be unfair to label the efforts of scores of dedicated volunteers around the world who have striven to drive the accident rate down over the last decade. They have raised awareness of safety shortcomings throughout every level of the industry and in every region of the globe. They also have put a wide assortment of training aids and safety toolkits in the hands of pilots, instructors and helicopter managers on nearly every continent.

But IHST’s inability to achieve the 80% reduction—or, in the view of some, to demonstrate a sustainable improvement in the accident rate—has driven changes in the group’s organization and activities and is forcing conversations now about topics that were set aside in the early years.

These changes include a new focus not just on accidents but also on fatal ones and on investigations of equipment on aircraft and tools on the ground that might make flying helicopters safer.

IHST safety forum Brazil Helibras

IHST’s successes include forums for promoting safety awareness, like this 2014 event held with Helibras and other entities in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters / Guto Marcondes

IHST in 2005 took on a monumental challenge. Its model, CAST, started with decades of data and analysis on flight hours, accidents, incidents and contributing causes. IHST volunteers had to build the most basic data set. No one had a central database of flight hours, essential for calculating the rate of accidents. Even the National Transportation Safety Board’s data was severely lacking. It combed over airline accidents, but helicopter ones typically got little more than paperwork reviews.

While CAST dealt with a small number of operators with big, largely homogenous fleets, IHST’s universe was made up of thousands of operators, most of whom operated fewer than five helicopters.

CAST, which like IHST is co-chaired by an industry and an FAA representative, was refreshed regularly with new leaders. IHST’s leaders served for years; HAI President Matt Zuccaro has been the industry co-chair since IHST’s inception.

The process of collecting and analyzing data to enable the identification of key contributors to accidents and means of mitigating them necessarily took years. But some participants grew frustrated at the apparent lack of progress toward the 80% reduction goal. At the same time, the ground began to shift beneath IHST.

At a 2011 top-level IHST meeting, the FAA co-chair (then-Rotorcraft Directorate Manager Kim Smith) urged members to begin working on reducing fatal accidents. Industry representatives resisted, arguing that the focus since the start had been on accidents, not just fatal ones. Smith explained that FAA headquarters’ directive to its offices was to work toward reducing fatal accidents.

The message was clear: IHST could attack fatal accidents or risk having FAA resources diverted from its work.

In April 2015, Rotorcraft Directorate officials said they would begin focusing on ways to reduce fatal accidents. They justified the move in part with data showing no sustained improvement in fatal accident rates over IHST’s tenure.

“From 2006 to 2015, 17% of all U.S. rotorcraft accidents involved a fatality,” FAA Operations Research Analyst Lee Roskop told April’s Rotorcraft Safety Forum in Hurst, Texas. “That number surged above 20% in 2008, 2010 and 2013.“

IHST safety improvement chart

Lack of improvement in addressing safety shortfalls over more than 20 years contributed to IHST’s creation. Image courtesy of the IHST

In 2015, Roskop said at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Certification Summit, “We saw the percentage trending above 20%” for the first half of the year before dropping “back around the historical average.”

From early on, IHST’s plan envisioned a high-level group to oversee the work of regional safety teams. Europe took the lead in the regional work, and has had the most success in that regard. (Its website offers a host of safety newsletters, brochures, videos and toolkits.)

Work in other regions was spotty. In Africa and the Middle East, for instance, work was launched but soon suffered for lack of funding and volunteers. Efforts in Australia were orphaned by a disagreement between the co-chairs.

In the U.S., most work was done directly by IHST. That changed in 2013, when two leaders were named to head the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team—the FAA’s Jim Viola and Bristow Group’s Bill Chiles.

One result of the U.S. team’s establishment has been a shift toward an examination of what roles infrastructure and the environment play in accidents and how to best mitigate them.

IHST’s early data analysis led to a focus on flight instruction sorties and private and recreational training. Remember, the team’s volunteers built their data sets of flight hours and accident causes from scratch. They had to figure out how to slice this new, big data set (made up initially of re-examined accidents from 2001, with 2005 and 2006 added later). They chose to slice by flight activity.

One rationale was that different commercial/public use activities (from aerial application to emergency medical services to search and rescue) had unique characteristics that required separate analysis and cause-mitigation efforts.

In looking at the data by activity, the biggest groupings of accidents were seen to be instructional/flight training, positioning/return-to-base, personal/recreational, passenger/cargo and aerial application.

That led to a focus on human-factor causes and the performance of individual pilots.

The U.S. team is now evolving and this month will host a two-day meeting in Washington, D.C., to assess the potential role of low-level aviation infrastructure, including IFR options, in improving helicopter safety.



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