ICAO to introduce new risk-based helo standards

 - September 26, 2006, 5:33 AM

After several years of discussion and consultation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will soon present new operating standards to helicopter operators around the world. Rather than take a “one size fits all” approach to rulemaking, which often proves contentious when comparing the capabilities of operators, national and industry representatives have adopted a set of recommendations that individual countries can adjust to suit their own requirements.

Jim Lyons, a former pilot and an authority on operational and performance standards, served as chairman of ICAO’s Helicopter and Tiltrotor Study Group (HTSG), the think tank behind the new standards that ICAO is about to approve. “We had a number of aims,” he told AIN. “First of all, the original Annex 6 text drafted in the late 1980s–although a tremendous piece of work–was aspirational in nature and, as time went by, led to a number of compliance problems.

“It predicted where the HTSG thought the industry would be in terms of performance 10 years down the line. At the time, they expected that today’s twins would all be able to hover out of ground effect on one engine at max weight. As we know, only one or two types can actually do that, while some Alouettes and S-61Ns are still flying, more than 40 years on. So the standards needed adjusting to better reflect the real world.”

As part of the rule-making process, ICAO develops internationally agreed-upon standards–the strategy for global air safety. Then, individual member states decide to adopt those standards as national regulations and operators write their ops manuals–the document to which individual pilots have to adhere–in light of those national rules.

Within these standards, Annex 6 covers operational requirements, Annex 8 addresses airworthiness and Annex 14 deals with heliports. Each incorporates a subpart aimed specifically at helicopters and were written by the same working group. Subpart 3 is the relevant subpart within Annex 6.

Until now, only Europe’s JAR-OPS 3 rules had been written “in the image” of Annex 6. However, when Lyons arrived on the scene in 1996, it was becoming clear to all that they could not live with it. “So, between 1996 and 1999, we made changes to liberalize some of the rules. For example, the whole concept of ‘exposure’ in performance stemmed from discussions held during that period.”

JAR-OPS 3 has had limited success–all European states have accepted it and agreed on it, but it has been adopted slowly, mainly due to complications raised in trying to adapt national procedures. However, when the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) ratifies it (expected before 2010), it will be binding for all of its members.

Simplifying Compliance

Lyons said, “Those of use who had been involved in forming the JARs [joint aviation requirements] realized that we could not be in compliance with ICAO in its purest sense so, as a temporary measure we modified JAR-OPS and member states filed many ‘differences’ [notices of noncompliance]. Once we had done this, we returned to the ICAO text because each of those differences needed to be addressed.”

In fact, neither Europe nor the U.S. was completely in compliance with the existing Annex 6, and the study group knew it had to make it more objective, to turn it into a statement of intent and to allow individual states a degree of freedom in working out how to comply with it.

“We knew there were a number of issues that would always cause problems with some states, so we were keen, where we could, to adjust the text to make it easier for them to comply. We wanted to modify those parts that were too prescriptive, that few of us could comply with, and make the text more flexible so that every state could bring its own regulations into compliance.”

One major point of divergence between Europe and the U.S. was the inability of current helicopter types to conform to standards and recommended procedures (SARP) when operating in Performance Classes 2 and 3. Specifically, it had been necessary in Europe to introduce the concept of exposure, wherein the potential of an engine failure during the short periods of takeoff and landing could be evaluated and accepted. The concept was based upon risk assessment, thus ensuring that approval was given on the basis of a defined process, with a safety target acceptable to each state.

The performance rules were amended to make the strict text–the absolute requirement for a safe forced landing in Performance Classes 2 and 3, and Class 1 in cities–less prescriptive and more risk-based. If a state wanted to introduce non-Class 1 into urban environments, for example, it would have to assess the risk and show that it was satisfied with the probability and consequences associated with a potential engine failure.

Operations manuals presented a similar problem under the old rule structure. Lyons said they “required an absolute structure and set of contents so, to introduce flexibility, this was downgraded from a rule to a level of guidance. At a stroke we brought a number of states into compliance: there was nothing intrinsically wrong with their ops manuals; they just hadn’t been written to comply with the prescriptive standards enshrined in Annex 6.”

Another rule required formal ditching approvals for all helicopters flying over water. It was particularly difficult for operators of smaller types–singles over the Gulf of Mexico, for example–to achieve these approvals. But in a nonhostile environment, such as over the Gulf, staying upright with floats is not a big issue.

So the group limited the requirement to hostile environments (considered to exist in conditions above Sea State 4). These conditions are uncommon in the Gulf but routine in the North Sea, for example, and the associated risk is much less for a helicopter that ventures over water occasionally, compared with an offshore type that does it all the time.

Lyons said, “because these standards are reviewed only every 20 years or so, we also needed to acknowledge the existence of new safety-oriented equipment–such as HUMS, TAWS, collision avoidance, flight data monitoring and so on. However, by making these recommendations rather than bald requirements, states would be able to make up their own minds as to when they should be required. You could argue that collision-avoidance equipment would be most useful in areas of high concentration of airframes flying VFR, rather than in IFR corporate ships, which might benefit more from having TAWS.”

The Air Navigation Commission accepted the study group’s proposal last April. The document was put out to to all 188 member states for consultation between June and November. The Secretariat was discussing comments in mid-December. ICAO is due to adopt the text as policy later this year. A discussion about the new text might take place at Heli-Expo later this month.

‘Little Practical Change’

What will be the practical benefits of signing up? “Right now,” said Lyons, “some states file a difference to everything contained in Annex 6 Subpart 3. Our aim was to reduce the number of potential differences so that nations could be brought into compliance. By the end of this year, each of them will have considered the proposed changes, deciding whether or not to file any differences. In Europe, incidentally, since many of the differences have already been addressed in the revised text, there will be little practical change.”

The majority of U.S. operators will not notice any difference, either. The FAA can now be in compliance with ICAO standards, because it has framed its safety regulations in line with ICAO’s objective standards after having taken “due consideration” of a number of issues. Having done this, it can judge whether existing regulations meet these standards or not. “My guess is that they will remove a whole tranche of differences that had been filed.”

The revision will also mean a number of benefits for the industry. It will have a modified set of operational standards, including performance, that have been adjusted to make them practical for all ICAO member states.

In offshore operations, the Oil and Gas Producers Association has agreed that all helicopter support contracts should be framed around Annex 6 Subpart 3 standards. In the past, said Lyons, not one operator has met that criterion. “Operators around the world will be able to bid for a contract based on these requirements, and the oil company will know exactly where it stands.”

In addition, coming off one contract, a helicopter will not have to be modified before it is redeployed.

Before long, all helicopters will be built, certified and equipped to these same standards and operators will know they are on a more level playing field with their competitors.

Operators will also know that their aircraft are in compliance. As a result, the requirements of their national regulator should not create disadvantages for them.

Lyons concluded, “Serving on committees can be a thankless job, but these new standards show that you can make a real difference. It is a long-term commitment, but when you get a result like this, it makes all the aggravation worthwhile.”