French HEMS operator: autopilot ‘hazardous’ equipment

 - July 2, 2014, 2:10 AM

Helicopter EMS operator Mont-Blanc Hélicoptères (MBH), a defeated bidder in a recent tender by a group of hospitals in central France, is suing the group on technical grounds, alleging some of the requirements are irrelevant. In particular, the stipulation for an autopilot compromises safety, according to MBH managing director Yannick Métairie, who dismisses the autopilot as a “hazardous” system.

“The technical requirements issued by Dreux hospital [which led the tender] exceed those from civil aviation authorities such as the EASA and the French DGAC, as well as the guidelines from the ministry of health,” he told AIN. He argued that “80 percent of France’s fleet” does not meet the requirement for an autopilot because so far the stipulation has been only for “a stability augmentation system (SAS) or an autopilot.”

He challenged the case for the requirement for an autopilot, suggesting that it stems from “lobbying action” by helicopter manufacturers. “The autopilot and accompanying avionics make the aircraft 150 pounds heavier,” he said. He also asserted some pilots tend to rely too much on the autopilot or are not proficient at using it.

To support his claims he cited a 2013 FAA report that, he said, confirms automation is a major cause of accidents. However, the report to which he refers is about airliners and makes it clear that, while there are vulnerabilities in how pilots use autopilots, “automated systems have contributed significantly to improvements in safety.”

The EASA does not quite agree with Métairie either. “An autopilot or at least an SAS is strongly recommended, to allow the pilot in an emergency to get the aircraft on track and altitude for a period of time, while he concentrates on the problem,” Jean-Marc Sacazes, an operational suitability expert, told AIN.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman with the BEA, the French equivalent of the NTSB, said she has never seen a recommendation prompted by improper use of automation in a helicopter anywhere in Europe.

Nicolas Letellier, one of the hospital officials in charge of the tender and president of the association of HEMS users, noted that the autopilot has become standard equipment on light twin-engine helicopters, just as ABS brakes have become standard on cars.