European program aims to improve helicopter safety

 - October 18, 2006, 11:28 AM

A $4.7 million European Union project could reduce the number of fatalities in helicopter accidents. Dr. Mike Blundell, a senior lecturer at England’s Coventry University, is working with 11 European partners on HeliSafe–an advanced crash-protection system that will involve a common approach to designing safety features such as seats and seat mountings, harnesses and airbags.

Statistically, flying fatalities are 10 times more likely in civil helicopters than in airplanes, but Blundell asserts that helicopter crashes should be survivable. “Because helicopters fly close to the ground, the impact in a typical crash can actually be less than in a motorway car smash,” he said. “The problem is that current seats, harnesses and other safety devices don’t offer enough protection.”

In addition to improving occupants’ survival chances, HeliSafe aims to reduce the risk of injuries. “Although our main goal is to avoid disabling injuries such as head and spinal damage, we also want to protect against broken ankles and wrists, which prevent people from getting out quickly.”

The team has carried out a full-scale civil helicopter crash test, at the Italian Aerospace Centre in Capua, to assess the effect of existing safety features on crash-test dummies. Using the results as a benchmark for a future crash-protection system, Blundell is building computer-aided engineering models to simulate the effectiveness of new features.

“We are given information–often technical drawings or computer files– and construct models that tell us whether particular safety devices will work,” he said. “Prototypes are expensive to make, so it’s important to test things beforehand using simulation.

“We have extended the simulation to include looking at rollover–a feature common in helicopter crashes in which the tail rotor strikes first (as the pilot pulls the cyclic back to avoid impact) and the anti-torque protection is lost.”

HeliSafe is coordinated by Auto-flug in Germany, and partners include DLR, Eurocopter and Siemens Restraint Systems (Germany); TNO Automotive and University of Delft (Holland); CIRA and Politecnico Milano (Italy); CIDAUT (Spain); Eurocopter-SAS (France) and PZL Swidnik (Poland).    o