Commercial, Safety

2019 Uptick In Fatal Helicopter Crashes Prompts Warning From Safety Advocates

By Dan Parsons | July 11, 2019
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Helicopter Line New Zealand Crash

Photo courtesy of the Transportation Accident Investigation Commission

With more than a dozen fatal accidents through June, 2019 is shaping up to be a particularly deadly year for U.S. rotorcraft operations.

Those 15 accidents claimed 27 lives in the first six months of 2019, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST). That tracks with 2013, which saw a total 30 fatal accidents, but July historically sees a high number of helicopter mishaps, so the industry may surpass that number on its way to matching 2008, when there were 35 fatal helicopter accidents, according to the USHST.

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Because the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to rule on what caused most of the 2019 accidents, it is difficult to identify any sort of trend or root cause for the uptick in fatal crashes, said Tony Molinaro, a USHST spokesperson.

“When we look at fatal accidents, it’s not like we can determine a cause right away because NTSB has to investigate,” he told Rotor & Wing International in an interview. “Looking at types of helicopters and what missions they were on, they really are all over the board.”

Of the 15 fatal crashes so far this year, two were corporate helicopters, two were EMS aircraft, two were carrying external loads, four were private, one was an air taxi, one a sightseeing helicopter and one belonged to the U.S. Forest Service.

“So, no trend there at all,” Molinaro said. “It’s like folks are going out there planning to have an accident – there’s no real trend. Fortunately, the numbers are small, we’re not talking about hundreds.”

There also is no commonality among the types of aircraft that have crashed. Bell, Hughes, Robinson, Guimbal, AgustaWestland/Leonardo all are represented.

“That’s all over the place, too,” Molinaro said. “The aircraft are just as different as the missions they were flying.”

Helicopter accidents in general have been trending upward in recent years, and with only low-to-modest growth in the overall market, the uptick is not likely a result of more rotorcraft in the air, he said. There have been 67 total accidents in the U.S. this year, compared to a total 121 for 2018.

To arrest the increase in fatal helicopter crashes, the USHST is urging pilots to return to the basic safety principles gleaned from studying a decade of accidents, Molinaro said. All helicopter operators, pilots, instructors and mechanics should rely on safety basics and place a stronger emphasis on identifying and managing risk. The USHST offers the following checklist of basic safety practices:

  • Know How Much Fuel You Need or “May” Need – Always carry enough fuel for unexpected situations.  Ignoring minimum fuel reserve requirements is generally the result of overconfidence, a lack of flight planning, or deliberately ignoring regulations.
  • Take Time for a Walk Around and for Checklists – An adequate pre-flight inspection, a checklist and a final walk around are central responsibilities that determine the condition of an aircraft prior to flight.  In addition, post-flight inspections can identify issues prior to the next flight.
  • Recognize the Potency of OTC Medications - Because over-the-counter medications are readily available, pilots frequently underestimate their effects and the impairment caused by these sedating drugs.  In spite of specific federal regulations and education efforts regarding flying while impaired, over-the-counter medication usage by pilots remains a factor in 10 to 13 percent of aircraft accidents.
  • Stop the Scud Running – Lowering your altitude to avoid clouds or bad weather is dangerous and leads to fatal results from flying into terrain or obstacles such as wires and towers.  Know your minimum altitude and stick to it.
  • Visual Flight Rules in Instrument Conditions Can Lead to Death – Yes, death.  This is the all-too-often result of the previously-mentioned practice of flying too low. It is even more dangerous if the pilot is not instrument qualified or is unwilling to believe what the gauges are indicating.  This action usually results in not knowing where you are and an inability to recognize deteriorating circumstances and/or the misjudgment of the rate of deterioration.
  • Don’t Succumb to Get-There-Itis – This "disease" is common among pilots.  It clouds the vision and impairs judgment by causing a fixation on the original goal or destination combined with a total disregard for any alternative courses of action.
  • Don’t be Afraid to Divert, Turn Around or Land – Yes, you can divert from your original plan; you can turn around, or you can land.  Always make sure you have an alternative course of action available should the weather conditions preclude the completion of the flight as planned. In other words, don’t be afraid to land and live.

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