Friday, February 1, 2008
Editor’s Notebook: The Coming Revolution
We asked Jim McKenna, editor of our sister publication Rotor & Wing, to give us his perspectives on the coming changes in helicopter maintenance. Here are his thoughts. — Ed.
A revolution is brewing. Driven by a confluence of factors, it is picking up momentum and will transform why, when and how helicopters are maintained.
That’s a huge statement. Anyone even slightly familiar with helicopter operations knows that dramatic changes traditionally are alien to that segment of aviation. This trend is the exception to that tradition. To understand why, you have to know whence helicopter maintenance came.
"Hard-time inspection requirements are the helicopter’s albatross."
The old saw is that rotary-wing aviation is 50 years behind the fixed-wing world. The Wright brothers flew in 1903. While rotorcraft pioneers were flying by the late 1930s, World War II made building fixed-wing aircraft the priority. It wasn’t until the wars of the 1950s that helicopters really took off.
Helicopter maintenance lags, too. It would surprise most of you to learn that helicopters operate under what are largely "hard-time" maintenance schedules. After intervals as brief as 20 flight hours or less, critical components must be inspected; that requires removal of many parts. Helicopters have a lot of critical parts, and it is no surprise that most removed for inspection prove perfectly airworthy. Flight hours and revenue routinely are lost and maintenance labor hours expended for no demonstrable gain in safety or performance.
This is a key reason why helicopters are so costly to operate. But high maintenance costs are unavoidable by virtue of the conservative engineering practices that have made aviation as safe as it is today. Those practices dictate that if you don’t know the condition of a critical part, you must figure the worst-case point at which it will fail and then inspect it well within that limit. Hence the hard-time inspection requirements that are the helicopter’s albatross.
Fixed-wing aviation started moving away from hard-time limits 50 years or so ago. Maintenance Steering Group practices for designing airplanes and their MRO programs permitted condition-based maintenance, under which most key components were made so robust that they could be considered airworthy unless one shows signs (in service or regular checks) of degradation. Helicopter operators want that.
The main reason is that aircraft owners want lower operating costs, and more efficient maintenance is the main way of achieving them. But revamping maintenance requires knowing far more than is known today about how helicopters are flown and maintained. That, in turn, requires recorders of some sort, which add weight and increase operating costs. But that greater knowledge is essential, so manufacturers of helicopters and engines are developing recording capabilities and started the dance of persuading customers that the higher initial costs will be offset by maintenance savings.
The world’s biggest operator of helicopters, the U.S. Army, is already sold. It is fitting recorders on legacy aircraft, focusing on maintenance efficiencies not for fleets but for individual aircraft and squadrons.
"We have fundamentally changed the manner in which we conduct business and the manner in which we hold ourselves accountable to the community," Paul Bogosian, the Army’s chief civilian in charge of helicopters, told a Washington conference last month. "There is no way that we can reverse the fashion in which we’re conducting business."
Another driver behind this revolution is safety. Key customers, mainly energy companies whose workers are flown to offshore platforms, want helicopters to match the safety levels of international airlines and they are willing to pay for better safety. But you can’t improve safety unless you know the cause of today’s problems. Many helicopter accidents are mysteries. So energy companies want helicopters fitted with recorders like those Dale Smith discusses on page 18. The data those systems collect will help determine the condition of key components and will gradually support the change to maintenance based on their condition. — by Jim McKenna