Raising the Standard

By James T. Mckenna | September 1, 2005
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In offshore operations, the EMS community and now an international confab, helicopter leaders are pushing for new standards for safety and training.

If all goes as planned, a meeting will convene late this month that could transform rotorcraft safety.

At the behest of the American Helicopter Society International, leaders in the provision, use and regulation of helicopters will gather in Montreal, the home of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Their summons: take up the challenge of overcoming a safety record that hinders rotorcraft from being considered by many people a prudent means of transport. The meeting will kick off some new initiatives, such as a joint U.S. government-industry safety program. Attendees also will have an underlying motivation for reaching consensus on advancing safety; a major portion of the industry's customer base already pushing such efforts.


Organizers intend for the meeting to address the full range of vertical flight--civil, military and paramilitary. Since planning for it began over a year ago, the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium has won backing from ICAO, regulators in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, Canadian, French and U.S. accident investigators and rotorcraft manufacturers, civilian and military operators and customers from around the world. Industry groups like the Assn. of Air Medical Services, European Helicopter Assn., Flight Safety Foundation and Helicopter International also have joined in.

Its goal is straightforward and ambitious: find ways to reduce both civil and military helicopter accidents by 80 percent over the next 10 years. Specifically, the meeting aims to identify underlying accidents causes and risk of exposure to them, then begin developing strategies to mitigate those risks. That last point is key.

"Success will only be achieved if these strategies are effectively implemented," said Somen Chowdhury, the Bell Helicopter Textron Canada engineer who, as a member of the AHS Montreal/Ottawa chapter, is chairing the meeting.

In addition to top officials of ICAO, the French BEA accident-investigation agency, the U.S. FAA, Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, speakers are to include Sylvain Allard, president and CEO of CHC Helicopter; Sikorsky Aircraft President Steve Finger; Bell CEO Mike Redenbaugh; Bob Sheffield, managing director of Shell Aircraft International, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith, director of U.S. Army safety.

There seems to be good reasons to convene such a meeting now. Key segments of the helicopter industry are wrestling with major safety challenges. The U.S. EMS sector, for instance, has suffered a string of serious and deadly accidents in the last two years. The offshore support sector had the highest number of fatal accidents, fatalities per flight sector and fatalities per million occupants of an aircraft in 2003. That sector in the Gulf of Mexico suffered its worst year for fatal accidents in 2004.

Sectors of the industry also face ongoing stresses with the potential to aggravate safety problems. EMS companies in the United States, for instance, continue to operate amid intense competition for patient transports and contracts. Offshore operators are being asked to carry more passengers per flight and to fly greater distances to new deep-water rigs.

In many sectors of the industry, technical problems continue to cause about half of all accidents, a rate much higher than other areas of aviation. In addition, experts say, some older helicopters flying today are vulnerable to single-point failures that can lead to catastrophic results.

Those and other factors have already led to new safety initiatives. At the Montreal meeting, for instance, FAA officials plan to announce the expansion of a relatively new EMS safety task force to one that will address industry-wide issues. The new group will be based on the Commercial Aviation Safety Team set up in 1998 by government agencies and industry groups to address commercial airline safety problems.

Targeting such major problems as controlled flight into terrain, approach-and-landing and loss-of-control accidents and runway incursions, the the Commercial Aviation Safety Team set a goal of reducing airline accidents by 80 percent in 10 years--a goal mirrored by that of the Montreal meeting. Chowdhury has been selected as the industry co-chair of the rotorcraft effort, which has yet to be named. David Downey, manager of the FAA's Rotorcraft Directorate, will be the government co-chair. Additional government, industry and academic members are to be named to the group.

The Commercial Aviation Safety Team made a great deal of progress toward its goal, but the effort was stymied by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that focused industry and government officials alike on matters of security and financial survival for the airlines.

A helicopter effort may not face such a risk, as a major segment of the industry's customer base already is acting to raise the safety bar.

A Shell Aircraft study of helicopter airworthiness and risk mitigation identified seven key initiatives could make offshore helicopter operations as safe as flights on good commercial airlines, said Bob Sheffield, Shell Aircraft's managing director. The airlines' fatal accident rate is about one per million flight hours; the offshore segment's rate is about seven per million flight hours. Shell executives concluded the 7/7=1 program (seven actions dropping the fatal accident rate from seven to one per million flight hours) could cut their fatal accident rate by 84 percent, Sheffield said.

The top three initiatives Shell identified are: building or procuring helicopters for offshore work that comply to the latest FAA or JAA certification standards and amendments; providing full-motion simulator training for all helicopter types, from Schweizer 300s and Robinson R22s to Bell/Agusta AB139s, and establishment of quality and safety management systems and improved operational controls for helicopter operations.

The remaining four initiatives Shell identified are: adoption of health and usage monitoring systems for all helicopters flying offshore; standard use of flight operations quality assurance or helicopter operations monitoring programs; use of takeoff and landing profiles that minimize the consequences of engine failure, and installation of advanced-technology safety devices such as terrain awareness and warning and airborne collision avoidance systems and altitude-related audio voice alerting devices on all offshore helicopters.

Shell has set a policy of flying or contracting for aircraft that meet those standards by 2008 to 2013, depending on the intensity of operations in a particular area.

In addition, Sheffield said, the aviation and safety committees of the International Assn. of Oil and Gas Producers have agreed to embrace those standards. That group includes most of the world's major users or operators of offshore support helicopters.

With a major portion of the customer base demanding adherence to such higher standards, helicopter manufacturers and operators may have little choice but provide equipment that meets those standards. That motivation should make the goals of the Montreal meeting and the new FAA/industry team a bit easier to achieve.

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