On March 23, 2004, an Era Aviation Sikorsky S-76A transporting eight oil workers crashed in the Gulf of Mexico at night, killing the passengers along with the two pilots.
An NTSB investigation determined the probable cause for the crash was the pilots’ failure to identify the helicopter’s descent, which resulted in a controlled flight into the water. In reaction to this accident, the NTSB last March issued a call for all turbine-powered helicopters capable of carrying at least six passengers to be equipped with terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS).
While airplanes have had this requirement for the last year, rotorcraft industry response to the recommendation has been less than enthusiastic.
One operator assessed the situation this way: “There are a number of ways to protect yourself in your own home. One could be with a .22-caliber pistol, and another could be a Sherman tank parked in your front yard. Both will ultimately achieve the same result. EGPWS is a wonderful tool over land. But for us in the Gulf of Mexico there are other options, [such as] radar altimeters with voice alerts, which are much lower cost and can achieve the same end.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Air Logistics last month made the decision to equip its fleet with TAWS, choosing installations of the helicopter version of Honeywell’s enhanced ground proximity warning system.
Despite the spotlight that has been shone on Gulf helicopter safety in recent years, the accident rate has experienced a welcomed decline recently as pilots and operators put renewed emphasis on training and operating procedures.
In particular, 2003 and 2004 saw spikes in Gulf helicopter accidents and fatalities. In 2003 there were 15 helicopter crashes in the Gulf of Mexico, seven of them fatal. Contrasting those figures with the current situation, last year there were seven accidents, but only two of those were fatal crashes, claiming the lives of three people.
HAI has launched a safety program aimed at reducing the fatal accident rate of helicopters by 80 percent in the next decade, the cornerstone of which involves educating pilots and operators about the hazards unique to their flight environment. Gulf operations are one of several focus areas of the initiative.