HAI, FAA Call for Voluntary Rotorcraft Safety Retrofits

 - December 14, 2020, 8:48 AM
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, left and HAI president James Viola.

In separate appeals issued in early December, the president of Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the FAA administrator called on helicopter operators to retrofit their legacy aircraft with crash-resistant fuel systems, seats, and structures. 

Writing to his members, HAI president James Viola, a former FAA director for general aviation safety assurance, called for operators to voluntarily upgrade their aircraft to improve safety. Viola noted that while these improvements are mandated for new helicopter fuel systems manufactured after April 5, 2020, and that crashworthy seats and structures have been required on all new helicopter certified after 1989, only 10 to 16 percent of the total helicopter fleet met that requirement due to low turnover. Citing FAA data, Viola said that “from 2009 to 2017, non–crash-resistant seats caused the deaths of 307 people in helicopter crashes; 58 deaths were attributed to postcrash fires during the same period.” 

“As aviation professionals, we share a duty to reduce the risks inherent in aviation. Once a hazard has been identified, we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist—not when that hazard has been demonstrated to be both likely and severe in consequences,” Viola said. “Retrofitting aircraft to include these features will increase the likelihood of accident survival for your most precious resources—your employees and customers—and will make a clear statement of your commitment to safety. I know times are tough right now for most operators. A large portion of the industry is merely trying to hang on, make payroll, and stay insured. However, when times are tough, the strongest survive and thrive because they conduct their operations with safety as a foundational principle.”

At a subsequent HAI webinar, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson echoed the call for these retrofits on a voluntary basis as part of the agency’s “data-driven approach to safety.” 

“We’re taking a scientific approach that is data-driven and urging, not mandating, the adoption of safety proposals," he said. "We’re advocating for operators to make voluntary safety upgrades where it is beneficial.” He added that improved helicopter occupant protection was an obvious area where improvement could and should be made. “We know that blunt-force trauma injuries are linked to more than 90 percent of helicopter fatalities,” Dickson noted. He acknowledged that retrofitting these improvements into legacy helicopters was an additional expense for operators, but said that they are already required in new production helicopters. “We’d really like to see these same systems available and operators voluntarily installing them in our legacy helicopter fleet.”  

While praising the industry for not posting a single rotorcraft-related fatality in the 90 days leading up to December 1, Dickson said the 15-year trend for fatal helicopter accidents had not improved overall, and more needed to be done, particularly with regard to the adoption of safety management systems (SMS). 

“No accident, certainly no fatal accident, is acceptable,” Dickson said. 

Speaking again of the FAA’s anticipated 2022 rule to widen the SMS requirement for Part 135 and 145 operators and PMA parts providers, Dickson urged helicopter operators to “not wait for the rule. You can voluntarily implement it. You can identify hazards, and you can head off accidents or incidents by putting safety risk management processes in place. The key is being able to proactively identify and understand the risks in your operation. That is what an SMS really provides. It’s not a stand-alone process. It’s a business process that is integrated into your business. It leads to good data and good situational awareness, and good data drives good decisions.

“The aviation system is so data-rich," Dickson continued. "The machines [aircraft] are generating data. The air traffic control system is generating data. We have data from voluntary safety programs and flight data monitoring. A lot of the time when something bad happens, there was somebody in the world who knew there was an elevated risk. The challenge is to get that data, synthesize it, and present it in a way so that we cannot just be proactive, but actually predictive."

Dickson also said the FAA was working in concert with the aviation community to bring the agency’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system “into the rotorcraft community.

“This is a big deal," he emphasized. "We are working with the [rotorcraft] industry and HAI and other industry partners to push ASIAS to the forefront of helicopter safety. We’ve stood up an ASIAS rotorcraft analysis team. It can take us to the next level of safety in rotorcraft. A centralized database allows [helicopter safety] teams to dive into that data to be predictive of hazards and risks while maintaining key protocols and data protection critical to the success of the program. You can scan data from flight operations that could potentially lead to accidents and ideally have operators share that data with the [U.S.] helicopter safety team to develop mitigation strategies to reduce the risk of fatal accidents for the entire community,” Dickson said. He also touted the value of virtual safety workshops and the FAA’s newly instituted helicopter Infoshare program. “You can share stories and see how others have handled similar safety risks.” He also praised the work of the Helicopter Safety Advisory Council, which has developed best practices for the offshore energy sector. 

The administrator expressed concern that the Covid pandemic and other recent “disruptions” have diluted human capital from commercial carriers and OEMs with the potential to negatively impact safety. “There have been a lot of retirements and there's been a lot of change, people getting laid off. Instability and unpredictability are the enemies of safety. You don’t like for things to change. We’ve had a lot of change introduced into the system and a lot of disruption in a matter of months, sometimes weeks. The aviation system we had in February and March of 2020 is really not there anymore in the same way.” Dickson said this change made it imperative that the industry and the FAA be even more collaborative when it comes to safety and identifying risks. The risks, Dickson said, “may not be the same ones that were here seven or eight months ago.”