Safety advocates promote Int’l Helicopter Safety Team

 - February 19, 2010, 10:13 AM

The International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) was formed in 2005 with the goal of reducing worldwide helicopter accidents by 80 percent by 2016. That translates into an overall accident rate of 1.9 per 100,000 flight hours, or the elimination of 1,700 accidents and 1,100 fatalities.

Since its inception, the IHST and its subsidiary groups have been analyzing accidents and using that data to develop safety-related “tool kits” geared to small and medium helicopter operators, statistically the highest risk group for accidents. The tool kits contain materials, practices, and strategies already used successfully by large commercial helicopter operators such as Bristow, CHC and PHI to lower their accident rates substantially below the industry average. “That’s why their operations already are relatively accident-free,” said M.E. “Rhett” Flater, American Helicopter Society International executive director and IHST secretariat.

Two of those tool kits, covering Safety Management Systems (SMS) and training, already have been developed and two more, addressing maintenance and flight monitoring systems, should be available later this year. The tool kits are available through the IHST Web site (www.ihst.org) as well as on DVD, in print and through workshops at industry events including this year’s Heli-Expo.

Tool Kit Dissemination
The IHST is working closely with OEMs, insurers, government organizations, trade associations and industry groups internationally to ensure that its materials and message are widely disseminated, but leaders within the organization acknowledge that some of this work is still in the preliminary stages.

“We’re not reaching everybody to our satisfaction by any stretch,” said HAI president and IHST co-chairman Matt Zuccaro. “But we are ramping it up and this thing is slowly starting to snowball. We are doing a public relations and marketing campaign through HAI and other affiliated organizations such as ALEA [The Airborne Law Enforcement Association] are using it as part of their accreditation program.  We’re sponsoring all kinds of forums and making presentations around the world. There is not one of them that does not include a briefing on IHST and the tool kits. We are just passionate about it.”

“We can’t just sit around and publish this and throw it on the table and expect everybody is going to play with it,” said Flater.

However, IHST members hold no illusions with regard to this mission. Convincing the estimated 1,100 small to medium-sized helicopter operators in the U.S. alone that the information in the tool kits is scaled to the particulars of their operations and delivering the information to them via a convenient channel remain daunting tasks.

“That’s a tough nut to crack,” admitted Mark Liptak, an FAA safety engineer who spoke to AIN solely in his capacity as IHST program director. “We need to develop strategy and tactics more fully.”

ALEA’s experience with SMS provides powerful anecdotal evidence of its value and the potential of IHST’s tool kits to reduce the overall accident rate. Most of ALEA’s members operate five or fewer helicopters. ALEA formally adopted SMS in 2007, but it began integrating SMS into its annual safety seminars and workshops in 1999. Over the last decade the accident rate of its members has dropped 81 percent. “We know it [SMS] works,” said Keith Johnson, ALEA’s safety program manager.

For now, IHST is maintaining a multi-pronged attack using OEMs, associations, and government agencies to get the word out. “Every time we sell an aircraft and people get training from us, they hear IHST, they hear SMS risk strategies,” said Dave Downey, vice president of flight safety for Bell Helicopter.

The IHST is also working closely with the FAA. That includes getting material from IHST tool kits incorporated into FAASTeam (FAA Safety Team) programs and familiarizing local Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) with it. “We’re meeting with the FAA here at Heli-Expo,” said the HAI’s Zuccaro. “Then we are going to Kansas City to attend the FAASTeam meeting with the program managers and get this thing going.” One item Zuccaro will discuss at that meeting is the creation of joint FAASTeam/HAI dedicated helicopter pilot and helicopter safety programs that incorporate IHST materials.

Flater sees the FSDOs as a crucial key to getting smaller operators to adopt materials in the tool kits into their daily operations. “Every Part 135 operator has a principal operations inspector from the local FSDO who probably visits their operation once a week. If we can get all the FSDOs educated, we will succeed, but only with the Part 135 operators.”

While both Zuccaro and Flater see the FSDOs and FAASTeams as key to reaching the Part 91 helicopter community, they stress that, in addition to fixed-wing seminars, helicopter-specific programs should be offered to maximize the segment’s participation.

“The helicopter community sort of feels like it is the lost child of the aviation community,” said Liptak. “It feels like it doesn’t  get a lot of attention and to a certain degree it is right. It doesn’t want to develop fixed wing [safety] solutions, it wants to develop its own, and I think we have done that pretty well [at IHST].”
“Everybody realizes that we should do aircraft-specific courses to focus on and draw in more helicopter pilots,” said Zuccaro. “The [FAA] Wings program is available to everybody and historically there are no dedicated helicopter safety forums within the context of the overall FAASTeam program, or flight instructor renewal clinics dedicated to helicopter pilots, other than the ones we put on annually at Heli-Expo. We want to piggy back on that with some helicopter-specific programs and that is where the rubber will meet the road for us, hopefully.”

While distribution of IHST tool kits is in its nascent stage, the industry’s heightened safety focus in general may already be paying dividends. Liptak said that new technology such as NVGs and TAWS could be combining with a “Hawthorne Effect” to already drive down the accident rate. The term is used to describe short-term performance improvements that follow a burst of increased focus. “There is no question that going out into the community and heightening [safety] awareness has an effect,” said Liptak. “I don’t think it is a permanent effect. We need to drive things in to make it permanent.”

Safety Improvements
While the FAA’s records on civil helicopter annual hours flown is often viewed as somewhat imprecise, OEM data offers a promising picture of a significantly reduced accident rate. “Our data [from the OEMs] shows that we are flying a different number of hours than the FAA shows,” said Flater.

Roy Fox is chief of flight safety for Bell and is regarded as one of the industry’s best safety statisticians. He reports the worldwide helicopter accident rate per 100,000 flight hours has declined from 9.5 at the beginning of the last decade to 5.9 last year; in the U.S. it fell from 8.0 to 5.3. If this trend continues, the IHST’s goal of an 80-percent accident rate reduction could well be within reach.

“Reaching an 80-percent reduction in the accident rate is not a ridiculous goal. The [larger] operators already have attained this goal. If they can do it, somehow we can find the keys to do it,” Flater said. “One hundred percent is my goal, but 80 percent is a good goal.”

SMS is already the law in Canada and may eventually become part of the FARs in the U.S. However, the goal of the IHST is to improve the industry’s safety record faster than any potential future regulatory change and thereby abrogate the need for such change. “Our vision is to proceed with all deliberate speed and not wait for any government agency,” said Flater. “The rulemaking process takes a long time and we don’t have the luxury to wait.”

“The culture of this project [IHST] is to use regulatory change as a last resort,” said Liptak. “If we were going after a significant regulatory change it probably wouldn’t meet our timeline of [reducing the accident rate] in 10 years.”

The IHST is briefing insurance underwriters about its activities on an informational basis and not as part of any effort to change underwriting standards. “We are not trying to push mandatory standards–there is none of that,” insisted Liptak. However, if IHST assists in driving down the overall accident rate, it could have a positive impact on premiums down the road once enough supporting data is developed. “The insurers don’t do anything until there is a significant base of data so that it is the right thing for pricing risk,” Liptak said.

Flater agreed. “We have to demonstrate a serious reduction in the accident rate.”
That will take more time. “It is a slow process and people are just beginning to have awareness,” said Bell’s Downey. “Slowly but surely you win one operator, one pilot, one customer at a time. It’s not like a vaccination.”

Flater insisted that the IHST is part of a cultural sea change in the industry that is permanent. “This is here to stay. The FAA, Transport Canada, EASA, Brazil, and Australia all have bought into it and the Chinese and Russians are interested.”