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The Value of Capability

By By James T. McKenna | August 1, 2016

In last month’s article on airborne use of force by police agencies, R&WI contributor Frank Lombardi explained that the mere presence of a helicopter could deter criminal activity and change the situation on the ground for the better (“Police Face Much to Consider in Airborne Use of Force,” R&WI, July 2016, page 28).

This is a public-safety benefit of helicopter capabilities beyond the ones that were made obvious in last month’s sniper attack in Dallas and terrorist attack in Nice, France.

The Dallas Police Dept.’s Air One, deployed July 7 to monitor a peaceful downtown protest march against police violence, could not have been expected to prevent the gunfire that killed five police officers among scores conversing pleasantly with marchers and protecting their right to protest. But Air One’s crew quickly shifted to aiding ground units in spotting and isolating the shooter, who also hit seven other officers and two civilians.

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(R&WI contributor Mark Colborn was flying Air One that night. We offer condolences to him and his fellow officers for their losses that night, and extend the same to their comrades in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who saw three officers shot to death July 17 in a related attack.)

In Nice, after a mad man in a truck killed more than 80 people celebrating France’s Bastille Day and injured scores more, helicopters aided in securing the area and saved lives by transporting the wounded to emergency care.

We can only speculate how these and other recent large-scale crimes and terror attacks around the world might have played out without helicopter support available to bring in additional forces to the affected area, monitor ground activity and transport victims. Such events, as well as frequent responses to natural disasters and humanitarian crises, remind us of the value of the helicopter’s capabilities, as well as the need to improve them.

Consider Switzerland. Rega Swiss Air Ambulance estimates that each year weather and visibility restrictions prevent its helicopters from reaching 600 patients in need of emergency care. The operator has developed a low-level instrument flight rules (IFR) network. Combined with new full ice protection on its new Leonardo AW169, Rega’s head of corporate development, Stefan Becker, said, “We will be able to reach those patients.” (Becker is just one of the industry leaders who will share promising new applications at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Technology Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sep. 19 to 20. You can learn more about that event at www.rotorcraftsummit.com.)

Such facts make more striking the helicopter industry’s ongoing efforts with the FAA to clear the path to reviving single-engine IFR helicopter production and operations in the U.S. That market segment was essentially killed off by a 1999 change in certification guidance that set reliability requirements for single-engine helicopters that are on par with those for commercial airliners. As we report on page 24, momentum may be building to ease those restrictions.

Air ambulance and police operations would be key beneficiaries of the added capability such a change would bring to market. But many other types of operations would gain from the safety benefits of wider IFR use, which has the potential to raise training levels and improve decision-making throughout our industry. If it did nothing more than cut down on fatal accidents involving inadvertent flight into bad weather and controlled flight into terrain, such a change would be worth the effort.

A related issue is the FAA’s proposed change to certification guidance for inlet barrier filters to protect helicopter engines. On page 14, we described the industry’s emphatic comments on this proposal. Aside from their cost and safety benefits, such filters keep helicopters flying — particularly in isolated, dirty, dusty environments in which vertical lift is a critical (and often life-saving) capability.

It is encouraging to see the FAA working with the industry to resolve such issues. We encourage its leaders to weigh the comments on IBFs carefully in re-evaluating its proposed guidance change and to move expeditiously on the single-engine IFR proposal. It is in the interest of everyone in this industry and the general public to safely develop and field more capable rotorcraft as promptly as prudence allows.

R&WI is committed to supporting such efforts.

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