Public Service, Regulatory, Safety

FAA Studies CFIT Accidents, as Sikorsky Plans to Eliminate Them by 2030

By Frank Wolfe | October 26, 2018
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Rear view of a male pilot flying a helicopter on sunny day.

File photo

Since October 2017, the FAA General Aviation Joint Steering Committee has been studying controlled-flight-into-terrain (CFIT) accidents and plans to finish its work in the coming months.

"The GA JSC CFIT working group has a couple of meetings left before they finish," Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA, wrote in an email Oct. 26. "After their work is completed, the safety enhancements will be reviewed by the Safety Analysis Team and then go to the GA JSC to be voted on. The safety enhancements could be voted on early next year and the report could go out shortly after that."

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While CFIT is the second largest risk in general aviation — after loss of control in-flight (LOC-I) — it accounts for less than 10 percent of helicopter accidents, according to U.S. Helicopter Safety Team data. A report last year of 104 fatal accidents between 2009 and 2013 said that five percent involved CFIT. The top two causes of fatal accidents were LOC-I and unintended entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

But CFIT is a heavy contributor to accidents with helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) rotorcraft, as pilots are more prone to fly in inclement weather and nighttime conditions, and may be relatively inexperienced. In addition, single-engine pilots may fly visual flight rules (VFR) — lower and under clouds and weather.

A company goal at Sikorsky is to eliminate CFIT accidents by 2030.

Raj Helweg, chief pilot for Air Methods, said that the goal is a viable one.

"The two things that will really help that are training people to fly with reference to the instruments and terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS) in the aircraft that tell you when an obstacle is coming up," Helweg said Oct. 23 at the Air Medical Transport Conference (AMTC) in Phoenix.

"Controlled flight into terrain, if you think about it is an interesting concept," he said. "If somebody goes into the clouds, and they get in an uncontrollable descent rate because of their inability to functionally control the aircraft by reference to the instruments, is that controlled flight into terrain? No. They're totally out of control when they fly into terrain, but it's classified as CFIT. If we can actually train them how to keep the aircraft stable, climb into the soft clouds instead of going toward the hard ground, make a turn and come out of it, referencing the instruments, that's a huge part of it."

Night-vision goggles are another important part of safety during HEMS missions, and Air Methods has required its pilots to fly with them for the past five years, Helweg said. The AN/AVS-9s Air Methods pilots use have "absolutely" made a difference in safe flying, he said.

Driven by an upward trend in CFIT incidents, the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) mandated terrain avoidance systems for most fixed-wing commercial aircraft in the mid-1990s. While that all but eliminated CFIT in the air transport industry, rotary-wing CFIT accidents increased, largely due to the rise in rotorcraft usage and the increase in medevac, search and rescue, law enforcement and firefighting helicopters.

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