Making his first appearance at Heli-Expo as FAA Administrator, Stephen Dickson delivered a safety-focused message to show attendees on Tuesday morning, citing numerous challenges the industry faces and what the FAA is doing to help craft solutions.
His safety theme was cast in sharp relief by the helicopter accident that claimed Kobe Bryant and eight others on the eve of the gathering, “only 50 miles away from the convention center,” Dickson said. “Whatever the investigations ultimately determine, all of us in this room know that all too often helicopter accidents turned out to have been preventable.”
The former airline and fighter pilot admitted he has little background in helicopters. “I'm a student and I'm here to learn from you,” he told attendees. “But it's clear to me from a professional perspective that rotary-wing aviation is a central element of our transportation system.”
Comprising about 6 percent of general aviation aircraft in the U.S., helicopters make a “significant and even disproportionate” impact “when you count the benefits,” Dickson said, noting applications include medevac, search-and-rescue, fire-suppression, and air-taxi operations.
But traditional views of the industry are outdated, given the rise of drones and the nascent urban mobility industry, he added. Since the FAA established a mandatory registry four years ago, more than 1.5 million drones have been registered—some 400,000 of them for commercial use—and the agency has already approved 27 operators under Part 137 to use drones commercially to perform aerial applications.
Three years ago, the FAA “shifted our strategy from writing rules to getting machines in the air and flying, and taking lessons learned from the operations approval process to write better rules,” he said, an approach that “can help us ensure innovation can drive forward.” The FAA is currently conducting trials for package deliveries by drone with UPS and FedEx, among others.
Meanwhile, electric flying taxis are quickly moving “from prototype to testing,” Dickson said, and the agency is “currently engaged with the builders of more than 15 electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft projects.”
Helicopters have a fatal accident rate of about 0.63 per 100,000 hours., EVTOL passengers of tomorrow will expect “the [near-zero] level of safety achieved by the airlines,” Dickson said, underscoring safety’s critical role in industry growth.
As for current issues, Dickson cited the safety of air-tour operations and noise as particular problem areas. “I’m here to tell you this needs to change,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy in Congress as it relates to safety and noise concerns. If we can’t take meaningful action on both of these fronts very soon, I suspect that path forward might be dictated to us.”
Promising paths for enhancing safety include risk-based decision-making; implementation of safety management systems; sharing of best industry practices; and ensuring operators have clear channels for employees to report safety concerns, without fear of retribution, he said.
Dickson also cited FAA helicopter safety initiatives including its Helicopter Safety Team’s new “Workshop in a Box” program. “We're serious about getting on top of safety challenges you face in the industry,” he concluded. “The FAA is ready to work together with you.”