Safety on a Budget: A Small Operator’s Focus

By Stan Rose | September 15, 2017
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Helicopter pilot checking the flight manual before a take off. Helicopter is on the ground with bright sunlight.

File photo

It is estimated that about half of the helicopters operated in the U.S. belong to companies that have five or fewer ships. In other words, there are about 5,000 aircraft spread among more than 1,000 small operators.

The FAA distinguishes among operators, not by their size, but by the missions they support. And we in the industry tend to look at operators the same way. Are you a Part 135 or a Part 91? Do you fly logs in a sling load or accident victims in stretchers?


Another way to sort operators is by size. Of course, we all have to operate in compliance with FAA regulations. But there is a world of difference in how the big operators, who may have 50, 100 or 500 ships spread over bases around the world, meet those regulations versus the way it’s done by a small operator with three pilots, two ships and one mechanic.

In small operations, there is seldom the budget to have one person dedicated to improving safety. Instead, everyone shares the duties that are essential to safe operations, in addition to their primary duty to fly or fix the ships. But is that enough to keep them safe? Is your safety program dedicated to keeping the status quo or to improving it?

The U.S. has experienced two major hurricanes recently. In the years since Hurricane Katrina, there’s been a lot of talk about U.S. infrastructure and its vulnerability to disasters both manmade and natural. Despite our efforts to prepare, storms, earthquakes and wildfires still challenge our ability to cope.

I just listened to an interesting story on the radio, talking about a hospital in Houston that had to be evacuated because the power went out and its generator also failed. Of course, that was one of the lessons learned during Katrina — don’t locate generators in areas that could flood.

One of the people interviewed for the story said that most hospitals learned that lesson and moved their generators to the roof or other high places. These organizations did the right thing and spent a lot of money on programs designed to prepare for emergent situations.

However, funds are always limited, and decisions had to be made regarding the extent of the improvements. In the hospital being evacuated, the generator had been moved but the junction boxes were still in the basement. They had fixed part of the system but didn’t look at the big picture, and so the system failed.

Unfortunately, there is another, even more vulnerable level of health care that is at risk during severe weather: the critical services delivered at smaller facilities like a dialysis unit or nursing home. These facilities generally don’t have the budget that larger hospitals do, and yet they serve a fragile community that depends on them.

If one of these smaller units has a million dollars to spare, how do you convince them that they should forgo that new parking garage that will improve access for patients with mobility problems — thereby improving their bottom line — and spend it instead on preparing for an event that might never happen?

Don’t we have this same problem in aviation safety? The big helicopter companies have considerable, though not unlimited, resources to spend on safety. With the luxury of spreading their safety costs over a larger fleet, they have dedicated safety personnel, safety management systems, flight-data monitoring — sometimes even a dedicated staff that does nothing but assist with safety audits by outside auditors.

Small operators, on the other hand, are usually multitasking all day long, while struggling to do the two things that will ensure their businesses’ survival: keeping clients happy and getting new clients to keep happy. Their dedication to safety is no less than anyone else’s, but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, dollars in the budget, or staff with safety expertise.

It can be frustrating to feel like you can’t get ahead of the curve. We all want to operate our helicopters in the safest possible manner. But as small operators, what are our resources to improve our safety program and keep up with industry best practices?

This is where I come in. In future columns, I will take a look at safety in small helicopter operations. Let’s talk about ways that we can use our limited resources and enjoy the same level of safety as those big guys. If you have some ideas on how to get maximum safety benefits on a limited budget, please share them with me at

True, compared to larger operators, small operations have limited resources and budgets. But our size also makes us agile and gives each staff member a personal stake in safety. C’mon, we can do this!

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