Eurocopter’s “fleet safety directorate,” officially formed last July, continues to study human factors in helicopter operations, with the statistical backdrop that pilot errors cause an estimated 75 percent of helicopter accidents, and maintenance errors account for another 10 percent. The Franco- German-Spanish company is thus looking for the roots of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that are blemishing the sector’s safety record.
“Helicopter traffic is booming. If we do not take action, the number of fatal accidents every month will reach an unacceptable level. This, in turn, could affect demand. The airlines faced such a situation 10 years ago and tackled it successfully,” Jean-Pierre Dedieu, senior v-p for fleet safety, told AIN. The directorate, which acts primarily as an information coordinator, is to review technical documents and training programs accordingly.
“Human factors are not our primary area of competence, but we can help,” Dedieu emphasized. The fleet safety directorate was created in response to the industry’s demand for safety improvements, which yielded the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) in 2005. The IHST targets an 80-percent reduction in helicopter accidents between 2006 and 2016. The current rate is 8.6 accidents every 100,000 flight hours, compared with the major airlines’ average of 0.2. Although the statistics look better when measured against aircraft flight cycles, there is room for improvement. Frequent human-factor causes include loss of visual cues, collision with an obstacle and poor handling of an equipment failure.
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One goal is to make standard those items of safety equipment that are still optional. “Customers are often too price-minded, to the detriment of safety hardware,” Dedieu said. For example, crashworthy fuel tanks are still an option rather than standard.
Moving options to the standard equipment list will require agreement among manufacturers in a competitive marketplace, a process that could take years. However, said Dedieu, the wait for new FAA and EASA certification rules could be even longer.
In the future, helicopter occupants could also benefit from the use of airbags. “These could be both internal and external,” Dedieu hinted. A research program was completed last year. In addition, Eurocopter is working with a company in the Middle East that he declined to name.
Dedieu believes that wider use of flight recorders would help improve the safety record, because in the event of an accident without such a recorder, the investigation into the cause is far more cryptic. Moreover, those operators that use recorders as part of a safety management system (SMS) have reaped benefits. After a flight, for example, they analyze the data to reveal possible deviations from standard procedures, deviations that could lead to accidents if left unaddressed.
Operators with big helicopter fleets already use flight recorders, and they share data with Eurocopter. Dedieu would like to see smaller operators do likewise.
One of the big challenges for the directorate is finding an effective way for operators to share data with one another. The issue of confidentiality could be addressed via semi-anonymous experience feedback reports on a collective Web site. Another issue is the amount of information; too much detail makes data processing unworkable.
Once data has been collected, training and aircraft documents can be improved appropriately. “We need to customize training,” Dedieu said. Documents should include more drawings, photos and videos for greater clarity. The improved training and evaluation should be implemented for pilots and maintenance technicians.
“Our role is not to embrace everything about safety but to cement various teams around safety. We want to motivate people about safety, suggesting to them ways to find root solutions to issues that would otherwise have undergone a lighter corrective treatment,” Dedieu concluded.