Rotor Experts Tout SMS and Automation

 - October 1, 2021, 9:11 AM

Safety Management Systems (SMS) and intelligent application of new technologies promise to have a dramatic impact on helicopter safety. That was the consensus of a diverse panel of experts at a recent Helicopter Association International (HAI) webinar. 

Executives from air ambulance company Air Methods and helicopter OEM Sikorsky touted the benefits of implementing the FAA’s voluntary SMS program ahead of the rollout of the anticipated mandate sometime next year. Jennifer Peasley, SMS manager for Air Methods—the nation’s largest air ambulance provider with 400 aircraft and 5,000 employees—said the key to SMS acceptance throughout an organization is “keeping it simple.” Lockheed Martin Sikorsky fellow Chris Lowenstein, meanwhile, recommended using the FAA’s “four pillars” of safety: policy, risk management, assurance, and promotion while engaging and receiving the support of top management. “If you don’t have that, you are not going to get anywhere,” he said.

Lowenstein also advised employing a data management system that is appropriate for the size of the organization. “There's so much data involved in SMS, data to be managed and handled properly, that that's really important. It's probably the biggest issue, particularly with a large organization.

Lowenstein likened the task of managing SMS data to turning a supertanker, noting that “it takes a long time.” But, he added, it is less burdensome than one might think. “It looks cumbersome, but many operators are already doing much of what is already required by SMS," he noted. "We found we already had many of the reporting mechanisms in place,” Lowenstein said, while acknowledging the need for process and policy changes. 

Peasley cautioned that merely having an SMS will not necessarily make a huge change in accident or incident data but could result in more positive safety trends. “We were able to mitigate those [risks] and see efficiencies throughout our organization” and were able to “drive down  things like personal injuries because we can promote and address those things we’re seeing in [the SMS] reporting.” 

Lowenstein said SMS gives visibility to the role of human factors throughout an organization in accidents/incidents. “When I started 25 years ago as an investigator," he said, "we didn't use the terms 'crew error' or 'human error.' We just said 'pilot error,' and that was very limiting—and it wasn't fair—but that was the state of the industry at the time.” Now the term "human factors" has been expanded to examine the role at the “supervisory and organizational levels” and the “different levels of human error that contribute to an accident,” Lowenstein said.  

Increasing automation can also improve safety, but only if pilots train on it and regularly use it, said Bruce Webb, director of aviation education at Airbus Helicopters. “We build fantastic machines," he commented. "But we're not always using them to their potential because we didn't prepare ourselves to use them to their potential. It takes training to learn those differences.”

This is particularly the case in IFR-equipped helicopters. Webb pointed out that instrument flying is a perishable skill that requires repetition as does the use of technology such as automatic flight control systems (AFCS) or even a basic two-axis autopilot. “There is a lot of good justification to install a system like that when you look at the potential to improve safety," he said. "But if you don’t use those systems when you don't need them, you will not use them when you do. You will revert to how you fly. You'll go back to hand-flying. Don't do that."

Lowenstein stressed that training could be informal but the main thing is to practice using the systems. "When you're just deadheading somewhere or going home, use those systems and become familiar with them," he said. "I don't care how good your technology is. If you're not comfortable using it, you’re neutering its effectiveness at a minimum—and maybe doing much worse. If I'm flying a helicopter with an automatic flight control system—a very large aircraft, such as a Sikorsky S-92 or an Airbus H225—and I am hand-flying the vehicle, I'm kind of misusing it. You don't buy a ship like that to be out there hand-flying it. Use that automation, use that technology, and then manage the systems.”

In that same vein, the panel expressed optimism that the incorporation of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence into helicopters would lessen pilot workload while providing increased safety and that the continued incorporation of “big data” into the rotorcraft ecosystem would likewise be beneficial.