Operators need to change systems to improve safety

 - April 30, 2007, 7:38 AM

Implementing safety management systems (SMS) and developing operator decision-making skills are imperative to improving the accident record for helicopters. That was the message more than 100 helicopter pilots, crewmembers and industry managers heard at the third annual Helicopter Safety Forum, co-sponsored by FlightSafety International and Rotor & Wing magazine, held this year in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The event highlighted the ways in which helicopter operators can reduce the occurrence of accidents by implementing an SMS. The purpose of such a system is to minimize an organization’s risk exposure in all operations by identifying potential hazards and defining specific ways to avoid them.

Representatives from the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), of which the Helicopter Association International (HAI) is a member, said that using an SMS is the key to achieving the team’s goal of reducing helicopter accidents by 80 percent over the next decade.

About half of the attendees said they were affiliated with an air ambulance operation. According to the NTSB, 89 air ambulance accidents took place between January 1998 and 2005, resulting in 75 fatalities. More than half of the accident flights were conducted at night under Part 91.

Jim Waugh, executive v-p at FlightSafety International, said that one of the main problems in trying to reduce helicopter accidents is that there is not enough good data on the accidents that have already happened. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in February found that the “lack of actual flight-hour data prevents calculation of the industry’s accident rate, making it difficult to determine whether the industry has become more or less safe.” The GAO recommended that the FAA gather additional data to support this effort.

“We aren’t holding ourselves and the regulatory agencies and the safety bodies accountable to the same degree we hold them accountable for fixed-wing accident investigation,” Waugh said, noting that the NTSB investigates only one in five helicopter accidents. [The NTSB doesn’t investigate every fixed-wing accident either, choosing instead to focus on those that provide lessons to be learned.–Ed.] Waugh said the IHST is working with the FAA and NTSB to focus more attention on helicopter accidents. “If we’re leading the pack, we gain credibility.”

HAI president Matthew Zuccaro, a veteran Army pilot and flight instructor, said the helicopter industry needs to change the way it deals with safety issues and make fundamental changes at every level, from pilots through senior management.

“I don’t think safety has anything to do with equipment. It’s in your head,”

he said. “You already know how to fly the aircraft. The majority of the time it’s decision making.”

Zuccaro said HAI is expanding its safety outreach efforts by taking its message “on the road” to places such as Hawaii, where a spate of air-tour helicopter crashes in March killed five people. Two of the crashes involved controlled flight into terrain, which many speakers at the Dallas conference noted can be prevented through a combination of better decision-making skills and cockpit technology.

“It should make no difference who is in the back; the go/no-go decision should be the same, based on safety of flight,” Zuccaro said. “When a pilot says, ‘The boss made me do it,’ my question is, ‘Who presses the start button?’ If you’re a professional pilot, it’s your decision. You have got to be able to stick to your decision and walk away from the situation.”

Steve Kilbourne, senior test pilot for Honeywell Aerospace, discussing Honeywell’s enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) and its integrated primary flight display (IPFD) for helicopters, took the same tack, emphasizing the individual’s responsibility in decision making. Kilbourne said that while EGPWS provides aural and visual warnings of dangerous terrain or obstructions, “the safety management system is a defense against the pilot who ignores these warnings. We cannot make pilots do things with their equipment.”

Kimberly Turner, CEO of Sydney-based aviation consulting firm Aerosafe, outlined the methodology that operators can use when developing their own SMS. “Aviators may be uncomfortable with this, but there is no checklist for safety management,” she said. “It’s a process.”

Turner emphasized that the support and commitment of top-level management–who might not have an aviation background–is essential to the development of an effective SMS. Often this requires a cultural change within the organization, as well as a concerted effort to educate customers about how their behavior and demands can affect operational safety.

Zuccaro noted that the majority of HAI members work for small companies where pilots often do more than just fly the aircraft. It can be difficult, he said, to convince these busy people that it is worth spending the time and money to implement what can appear to be an overly complicated safety system.

“I think all of this safety and risk stuff is scalable,” Turner suggested. “It doesn’t have to cost millions of dollars if you look at the elements. It takes discipline.”

Safety Improvements

David Downey, manager of the FAA’s Rotorcraft Directorate and cochairman of the IHST, outlined some of the initiatives that the FAA is taking to help improve helicopter safety. The Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team and Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team, sub-groups of the IHST, worked with the FAA to conduct a detailed review and analysis of nearly 200 helicopter accidents. The groups plan to present an SMS based on these findings at the International Helicopter Safety Seminar, scheduled for September in Montreal.

Mark Alain Dery, a public health researcher at Tulane University in New Orleans, presented the results of an 89-question survey he conducted of 832 helicopter EMS pilots in September 2005. The average age of the respondents was just under 49 years, with pilots reporting total flight time of about 6,600 hours. However, Dery said he was concerned that pilots reported that only just over 300 of those hours were in simulated instrument conditions, either in the aircraft or in an approved flight simulator. Seventy-one percent of pilots said their operator or program does not provide simulator training, and 74 percent said they felt access to flight simulators would improve the overall safety of their operation.

Dery concedes there might be some bias inherent in the results, but he maintains that the point remains the same: 40 percent of pilots responding to the survey said that safety was not their company’s first priority. “Poor pilot morale is highly associated with respondents believing that their program’s first priority is not safety,” Dery said. “That should be disturbing to all of us.”

Ed Schulze, chief flight instructor and safety director for the New York City Police Department, shared some of his personal experiences dealing with actual in-flight emergencies. He said that without his previous simulator training–conducted at FlightSafety International–he might not have lived to tell the tale.

An active Bell 412 pilot with the NYPD, Schulze was recently asked to cover a daytime shift even though he usually flies at night, when traffic is generally lighter. It was a clear day, he said, and at around 5 p.m. he was summoned to help pull a boy out of Flushing Bay. As he approached La Guardia Airport, he noticed a light on the cockpit panel flicker out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t catch what the message said. Several minutes later, he saw the light flicker again and this time recognized it as a C-box warning light. “Eight miles away I can see Floyd Bennett Field,” he said. Then he recalled a simulator training session when he was presented with the same scenario.

“If your C-box goes, you’re coming down,” he said. So he landed the 412 on a field below (which happened to be the grass tennis court at the posh Forest Hills Country Club). “I got out and joked that I was there for the steak and lobster dinner,” he said. “My simulator training worked and I made the right decision. I’m walking, talking, breathing, proof that a good training program is worth every penny.”