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 International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) was created in 2005 to address a rising helicopter accident rate (2.5% a year). An out-of-control accident rate generates a negative effect on the public’s perception of any industry. After 10 years of analyzing accidents and creating accident prevention initiatives, IHST’s efforts helped the U.S. helicopter industry realize a 53% reduction in accidents. Although it was short of the 80% goal for which the team had hoped, it’s clear the team’s initiatives were, and still are, having an impact.
In 2016, after the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) was created, attention shifted to a goal of reducing fatal accidents by 20% within the U.S. civil helicopter community. The USHST’s Safety Analysis Team (previously called the Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team [JHSAT] and later the Joint Helicopter Implementation Measurement Data Analysis Team [JHIMDAT]) performed a comprehensive analysis of fatal helicopter accidents that occurred from 2009 to 2013. The team adopted a data-driven, consensus-based approach to analyzing accident reports and developed intervention strategies that hopefully would mitigate the root causes of fatal accidents. Out of the 104 fatal accidents that took place during this five-year span, 52% of them stemmed from three “occurrence” categories:
- Loss of control in flight - 19 fatal accidents
- Unintended flight into instrument meteorological conditions - 18 fatal accidents
- Low-altitude operations - 15 fatal accidents
This fatal accident analysis work is a radical departure from the team’s previous methods. Over the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016, the IHST’s JHSAT and JHIMDAT analyzed 938 helicopter accidents using the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) method of assigning standard problem statements (SPS) to describe the specific problems underlying the accident and any contributing factors. For each SPS, the team assigned a corresponding intervention strategy (IS), or multiple ones. IHST compiled more than a half-dozen reports outlining this analysis.
The team worked from a standardized list of SPS and IS. Although the CAST list (modified for helicopter-specific issues) provided a great framework to create accident prevention strategies, it began to limit the team’s effectiveness and creativity. For the fatal accident analysis portion, the team was no longer constrained to a set list of possible IS. Team members thinking outside the box devised some clever and common-sense safety enhancements for each targeted accident category.
The USHST now partners with the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) and added a scoring feature to evaluate the importance and applicability for each chosen SPS. ISs were scored for their effectiveness in a perfect and real world, and also scored for their feasibility across six factors (technical, financial, operational, schedule, regulatory and sociological).
A list of 22 safety enhancements emerged from our analysis work, each ranked by the USHST Steering Committee on importance and potential impact on accident reduction. Eighteen of the enhancements are approved for immediate implementation, with the remaining four deferred for further development. One of the deferred safety enhancements is perhaps too unique in its audacity, but its eventual implementation may help mitigate the root cause of certain low altitude-type operations, specifically wire strikes. The enhancement is technology/equipment-based and entitled, "FAA and industry will encourage the increased use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in high-risk environments and operations."
Surprisingly, the original IS that led to this enhancement was suggested in a room full of helicopter industry professionals at the Helicopter Association International Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. I had thought of this particular IS going into the meeting, but was reluctant to make the suggestion. But much to my surprise, the team member who suggested this arguably blasphemous IS was not escorted out of the building. Nonetheless, the intent of this enhancement is to eliminate situations where manned flights put individuals at unnecessary risk of injury or death when suitable unmanned options exist. As UAS technology evolves and regulatory guidelines mature, this safety enhancement will most likely be self-adopted by current operators.
The IHST, since inception, continuously struggles with outreach for its initiatives. Reaching large operators is easy, but 75% of all helicopter companies operate fewer than five machines. So, the USHST is focusing on four key helicopter industry areas where the largest number of fatal accidents (59%) are occurring: personal/private sector, helicopter air ambulance, commercial helicopter operations and the aerial application industry group.
Getting safety information into the hands of personal/private operators has been, and will remain, our toughest challenge. So how do we reach the weekend fliers or pilots who fly once or twice a month? How do we reach pilots who never attend AOPA or Wings seminars, or pilots who fly on student pilot licenses, or no licenses at all? We need your help. Tell other pilots about these enhancements. Ask them to tell all their pilot friends. Follow us on social media and re-blast our posts to all your friends.
Word of mouth is still our strongest advocate, and together we will stop accidents.
Mark Colborn is a senior corporal and instructor pilot for the Dallas Police Department Helicopter Unit and a retired chief warrant officer 4 and UH-60L Blackhawk standardization instructor pilot for the Texas Army National Guard. He also builds and flies multi-rotor unmanned aircraft systems and closely follows the legal and moral implications of integrating these machines into the aviation community for R&WI.