The FAA’s David Downey recommends that all night helicopter operations be flown by pilots wearing night-vision goggles (NVGs). “NVGs should be the norm, not the exception,” said Downey, manager of the FAA’s rotorcraft directorate in Fort Worth, Texas. Thus far, 500 helicopters have been modified for NVG operations, including pilot equipment and internal lighting, and the trend continues to grow, he said.
One problem with NVG installations is that while there is an FAA technical standard order for the goggles, no company has received TSO approval. Current NVG approvals are done via the supplemental type certificate (STC) process, which approves each installation and its goggles, but TSO approval would make installations faster as well as easier to export from the U.S.
The FAA is helping the industry by providing engineering, human factors and test pilot expertise, Downey said. A CD is available with all information needed for NVG modifications, including training procedures, operations approvals and the minimum operations performance specification.
The rotorcraft directorate, which has been a key advocate of the International Helicopter Safety Team effort, is focusing on four safety issues, Downey said, including surplus helicopters, NVGs, in-flight recording of operational and safety data, and safety management systems. While helicopter accident rates are declining, he said, “I continue to be frustrated by accidents that are fully preventable. The loss of lives, equipment loss and bad publicity…this needs to stop. Helicopters are more in demand than ever before, and the public expects that they will operate safely.”
Surplus helicopters can be useful, according to Downey, but they must be placed in service correctly, taking into account appropriate airworthiness standards and operational requirements. Surplus helicopters intended as maintenance trainers or museum pieces, for example, should be used for that purpose and not end up as operating aircraft. FAA guidance is available in Order 8110.56.
Some kind of flight data recorder would be helpful in helicopter accident investigations, he said, because 19 percent of accidents provide no data to help investigators determine the cause. Simple systems like the GPS-based Appareo event logger cost far less than traditional flight data recorders and can deliver useful information, both during normal operations and post-accident, he pointed out. Another simple system uses inexpensive video cameras mounted in the cockpit with images stored on flash drives that can later be replayed as videos. Add GPS data, and the resulting flight can be replayed on Google Earth’s mapping system.
These data-logging systems can also form the basis for creation of a flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) program, which can also be part of an operator’s safety management system (SMS). Downey said SMSs “are the number-one way to prevent helicopter accidents.” To that end, the rotorcraft directorate is urging helicopter operators to adopt SMSs, which are gaining traction in many segments of aviation.