The fatal helicopter accident rate has progressively increased over the last three years—from 0.54 per 100,000 flight hours in 2016 to 0.6 in 2017 to 0.72 in 2018—according to data released by U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) on Monday at Heli-Expo 2019. Year to date, the rate is 0.4 per 100,000 flight hours. To achieve the safety organization's goal of reducing the overall helicopter fatal accident rate by 20 percent by 2020, the cumulative average rate would need to measure 0.61 per 100,000 hours.
Likewise, the number of fatalities per 100,000 hours jumped from 1.02 in 2017 to 1.64 in 2018. However, the overall accident rate has held fairly steady over the last three years, declining slightly from 3.67 per 100,000 flight hours in 2016 to 3.62 in 2018. Year to date, it is running 2.61.
USHST attributed the rise in fatal accidents over the past three years in large part to accidents associated with non-essential low-altitude operations in which helicopters encountered obstacles. A causation comparison of fatal accidents between the baseline period 2009 and 2013 and then in 2018 showed that loss of control accounted for 18 percent in the baseline and 13 percent in 2018; inadvertent IMC encounters accounted for 17 percent in the baseline and 4 percent in 2018; and elective low-altitude operations at altitudes not dictated by the mission accounted for 15 percent of the accidents in the baseline period and 33 percent in 2018. The other causes category held steady at 50 percent for both the baseline and 2018 periods.
Of particular interest was the dramatic drop in fatal accidents in 2018 among professional operators in industries that have targeted safety training and that have begun to use flight simulators. “These groups are getting the best training and we’re seeing the results from this,” said the FAA’s Lee Roskop, a USHST committee co-chair.
The number of fatal helicopter air ambulance accidents as a percentage of the total dropped from 15 percent in the baseline period to 4 percent in 2018, while commercial operations went from 12 percent to 4 percent and aerial applications from 10 percent to 4 percent. What were notable were the categories where the fatal rates increased—personal/private flying and utilities/construction/patrol.
This was evident in the data—the percentage of fatal private accidents increased from 22 percent to 29 percent in the comparable periods and that for utility accidents surged from 7 percent to 25 percent. The latter category, while commercial operators, are more prone to be small businesses. “People flying themselves are not always engaged in the most robust safety system,” said Roskop. “It’s a huge challenge for us.”