NTSB Chair Pushes for More Helicopter IFR

 - March 17, 2021, 8:30 AM
NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt. (Photo: NTSB)

During the February 9 hearing into the fatal loss-of-control helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others last year, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt characterized the accident pilot’s decision to continue the VFR flight into IMC as “SLOJ” or “sudden loss of judgment.” During the hearing, Sumwalt stressed the need for passenger-carrying Part 135 operators to develop and maintain IFR proficiency and for wider use of scenario-based training. AIN spoke to Sumwalt after the hearing and posed questions concerning Part 135 helicopter operations and safety. It should be noted that the pilot in this accident held a helicopter flight instructor-Instrument certificate and was qualified to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). 

Why do you think some pilots who fly VFR into IMC have such a problem getting on the instruments and avoiding loss of control? 

Helicopters are inherently unstable. If you let go of something, that helicopter is going somewhere, and maybe not where you want it. But we see this in both fixed-wing and helicopter accidents. You are better off with a well-trained, proficient IFR pilot who is flying legally in an instrument route system that can accommodate them as opposed to staying down low or punching into the clouds [VFR]. Which would you rather have? Somebody who is scud-running in a hilly area—or anywhere—or would you rather have someone who is competent, qualified, and certified to be flying IFR, where they are receiving the radar separation they need and have the terrain clearances that are in accordance with the TERPS [terminal instrument procedures]. We’ve seen so many accidents where people are trying to remain VFR and then get into inadvertent IMC.

Then should all Part 135 helicopter operators be required to have IFR-rated pilots?  

We did recommend that all helicopter air ambulance operators have IFR-rated pilots, and that was incorporated in the 2014 FAA rule. But I don’t believe that all helicopter pilots should have an instrument rating. If you are strictly doing things like logging or law enforcement, it is not needed. But my personal opinion is that when you start carrying passengers for hire such as on-demand charters, I do think it would increase the safety margin. The problem arises when you are flying VMC and get trapped into going IMC. The 2014 rule requires Part 135 helicopter operators to demonstrate competence in recovering from IIMC [inadvertent entry into IMC]. But that did not help in this particular crash. It never hurts anybody to have strong instrument skills. It’s never a bad thing. 

Along those same lines, should all Part 135 helicopter operators be required to fly with autopilots? 

I don’t think so. We recommended it for single-pilot air ambulance operations and I can extrapolate that to the world of Part 135 when you are carrying passengers for hire. 

Given the difficulties inherent with operating low-level IFR in congested airspace and the frequency of the marine layer and its impact on helicopter VFR operations in the Los Angeles area, would the NTSB support installing weather cameras in the Los Angeles basin similar to Alaska and Colorado? 

We’ve not specifically called for weather cams in the L.A. basin; however, we do know that they have been effective and well-received in the state of Alaska. We have called for the FAA to evaluate a low-altitude IFR route structure and once they’ve evaluated it to implement it. We issued those recommendations coming out of our helicopter air ambulance recommendation package in 2009. We closed those out as “unacceptable” because the FAA didn’t respond. 

During the hearing, you talked a lot about safety management systems. Is it realistic to expect widespread SMS adoption before the FAA promulgates a final rule on this? 

I don’t think that people should wait for the FAA mandate to proceed with this. The operator in this accident had an SMS but we found that it was not as robust as it could have or should have been. The president of the company said he wasn’t very involved in it. Safety culture has to start with the senior leadership of the organization. If it doesn’t start there, it may not start at all.