Implementing safety management systems (SMS) and developing operator decision-making skills are imperative to improving the accident record for helicopters. That was the message more than 100 helicopter pilots, crewmembers and industry managers heard at the third annual Helicopter Safety Forum, co-sponsored by FlightSafety International and Rotor & Wing magazine, held this year in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Safety of emergency medical services flights
Jeff Hensel leaves the same voicemail every July 23. “Today is the anniversary of my accident,” the 25-year-old Northern Illinois resident reminds people, as if those listening might actually forget that day in 1999 when his car slammed into a tree. “If it weren’t for Flight For Life and a lot of people who took care of me, I would not be here today.”
On March 23, 2004, an Era Aviation Sikorsky S-76A transporting eight oil workers crashed in the Gulf of Mexico at night, killing the passengers along with the two pilots.
From a safety perspective, last year was not a good year for the air medical sector. A spate of fatal accidents has led to much media speculation about the safety record of U.S. air ambulances and even the medical benefits of using them so (apparently) freely. It has also further tarnished a deteriorating rate apparent in statistics from previous years.
At a public hearing yesterday, the NTSB singled out Part 91 operations in a special study on helicopter and fixed-wing EMS accidents. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of accidents doubled, with 83 since 1998. Main accident causes are CFIT, inadvertent operation into IMC and spatial disorientation or lack of situational awareness in night operations.
Analysis of last year’s fatal accident involving a King Air carrying Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski and others reinforces the value of the FAA’s requirements for terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS) on certain aircraft.
With accidents decreasing by 8.7 percent and fatal accidents dropping by 11.6 percent, last year was the safest year for U.S. general aviation since the end of World War II.
Noting that about two-thirds of all general aviation accidents that occur in IMC are fatal, the NTSB recently completed a study to better understand the risk factors associated with such accidents.
The Board used “case control methodology,” which compared a group of accident flights to a matching group of nonaccident flights to identify patterns of variables that distinguished the two groups from each other.
Since 1991 there have been 127 accidents involving helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operations, according to Helicopter Association International (HAI). Ninety-six of these were a direct result of pilot error, which can be broadly characterized as poor pilot technique; lack of situational awareness; loss of control; poor aeronautical decision-making; controlled flight into terrain, water or objects; or a combination of these.
Watch for the NTSB soon to release recommendations intended to improve the safety of EMS helicopter operations.