While the U.S. military has long had helicopter helmet standards, the commercial world is only now in the process of considering such regulations, as the FAA has traditionally focused on regulating items attached to the aircraft, not personnel.
While the FAA requires crop-duster pilots to wear helmets, there is no other federal mandate or accreditation requirement that commercial helicopter pilots wear helmets and that the helmets meet certain standards.
That may be changing. The accreditation agencies for medical transport, law enforcement, search-and-rescue, and firefighting helicopter companies are in the process of recommending that firms adopt the new standards of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Aviation Services.
The Public Safety Aviation Accreditation Commission (PSAAC) "is currently reviewing the DOI flight helmet standards for inclusion into our standards for law enforcement aviation, aerial firefighting and airborne search and rescue," said Don Roby, president of the PSAAC/Airborne Law Enforcement Association board of commissioners and the training program manager of the Airborne Public Safety Association. "The commission is meeting in March 2019 and will undertake this topic."
PSAAC's current standards language recommends that a helicopter crew wear a "U.S. military or similar international authority-approved flight helmet specific for use by helicopter crews."
"The current language does not provide agencies much guidance in advising them what type of helmet is approved for helicopter operations," Roby told R&WI. "The DOI standards will provide the agencies much more guidance in the selection of helmets and will serve as a reference document for PSAAC, as a standards developing entity."
In July, the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS) ratified the 11th edition of its standards, which are to go into effect Jan. 1. The new standards reference the DOI standards, require helmets for rotary-wing operations and provide that "helmets for crewmembers must be designed for aviation operations, appropriately fitted and maintained according to the program's manufacturer's criteria or program policy."
DOI said that a lack of aviation helmet standards, apart from the U.S. military, is a significant problem. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also does not routinely collect helmet data in accident investigations, although some NTSB investigators are including helmet information in their accident reports.
"Government regulatory agencies (such as OSHA) have not provided any guidance and the helmet manufacturers have made no effort in establishing industry standards," DOI said in the standards document. "Aviation helmets provide multiple levels of protection and need to be evaluated for many properties including (but not limited to) crown and side impact, sound attenuation, retention and weight."
"Although military-approved helmets will remain authorized, simply adopting military specifications as our own standard was eliminated as some of those specifications include areas that are not applicable to DOI," the agency said. "Some of these areas include the U.S. Defense Department purchase process, design elements involving ballistic protection and packaging/delivery. Additionally, some military helmet models were built to an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard (ANSI Z90.1), which is no longer supported by ANSI. As such, these obsolete standards are unusable for ISO 9001 certified or ISO 17025 accredited testing labs."
The DOI Aviation Life Support Equipment (ALSE) handbook lists four approved helicopter helmets, all made by Gentex, including the HGU-56/P, SPH-5, SPH-4B and HGU-84/P. DOI approved those helmets because they passed military testing and were manufactured in an ISO-9001 certified facility.
Last year, DOI contracted with Southwest Research Institute to develop helmet performance standards and testing methodologies. Gentex plans to have the institute test its HGU-56/P helmet to the new DOI standard by the end of the year.
Gentex has some critical mass that allows the company to pay for such testing, as Gentex helmets are not only DOI-approved but used widely in the U.S. military and by foreign customers.
Smaller companies may not be so fortunate. Dudley Crosson, founder of Florida-based aeromedical safety company Delta P, said it can cost a helicopter helmet company $75,000 to get a helmet tested and $50,000 to institute a quality assurance program for the helmet. Yet, helmet companies may benefit from partnerships with larger providers of aero services, and those firms may be able to help pay for the testing.
"The bottom line is if you can't afford to make a helmet safe, you shouldn't be making helmets," Crosson said.
"The DOI standards are fair," he said. "There's nothing that came out of Southwest Research Institute that's unreasonable. For the first time, we have a reasonable helicopter helmet standard. These are the commercial standards that people are going to be following."