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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Heli-Expo Show Day: Int’l Safety Team Seeks Operators’ Input

R&W Staff

EFFORTS TO BOOST THE SAFETY OF helicopter operations get the spotlight at Heli-Expo this week.

Leaders of the International Helicopter Safety Team are coming to Houston to brief operators on the progress of their efforts to reduce the helicopter accident rate 80 by 2016. They also are soliciting interest in and support for those efforts from more operators. That last point is a critical one.

Launched in late 2005, the international team has received backing from major airframe and engine makers, regulators from around the world, and big helicopter operators (particularly from the offshore-support sector).

But the helicopter industry is made up largely of small operators, those with five or fewer helicopters. It is this group of operators that suffers most of the accidents the international team seeks to eliminate. It is this group of operators that must embrace and implement the safety recommendations of the team. Therefore, team leaders maintain, it is this group of operators that must participate more fully in crafting recommendations that are pragmatic and effective.

The international team was occupied for about two years with analyzing a year’s worth of helicopter accidents to identify the most common contributing causes. Its analysis subgroup chose to start with U.S. accidents that occurred in the year 2000, because reports on accidents from that year were considered comprehensive enough to provide sufficient data for analysis (and because litigation stemming from the accidents had been concluded).

That subgroup dissected 197 helicopter accidents from that year and came up with an initial set of recommendations for mitigating their contributing causes. Those recommendations were turned over to another group that is focusing on developing specific steps to be taken to head off future accidents. It is this group, co-chaired by Hooper Harris, manager of the FAA’s Accident Investigation Div. and co-chair of the implementation team with Greg Wyght, vice president of safety and quality for CHC Helicopter Corp., that is seeking the input and involvement of more operators.

Meanwhile, the analysis subgroup has begun dissecting accident reports from the year 2001. It will continue working on annual data sets, comparing its latest findings to past ones to fine-tune (or confirm) the accident-reduction efforts.

While that effort is centered on North America, similar ones have been launched in Europe, South America, Australia, and India. Team leaders plan to extend the work to Africa and Asia.

A key challenge before the entire team concerns the helicopter accident rate. As with most aviation safety efforts, this one is focused on reducing accident rates. But no one can say today what the helicopter accident rate is because no credible baseline of flight operations exists to serve as the denominator in determining that rate. Individual manufacturers have records of flight hours flown per year for their products. But the only broader measure of helicopter flight hours is compiled by the FAA for U.S. operations. That is a sampling of operators and its results are considered highly unreliable.

To close that critical data gap, a group of International Helicopter Safety Team members — led by Roy Fox, chief of flight safety at Bell Helicopter — is creating an industry-wide database of helicopter flight hours. That group is doing so by sharing the databases of individual airframe makers, a cooperative effort considered remarkable by team members and observers given the level at which those manufacturers compete for sales.

The implementation subgroup is taking a sector-specific approach to identifying and implementing mitigation measures, Hooper Harris explained. Group members are compiling contributing causes of accidents by the type of operation typically involved in those accidents — for instance, emergency medical service, law enforcement, or offshore support. They then plan to confer with operators of those mission types to verify that their findings are valid and come up with mitigation recommendations that are realistic within the constraints of that particular operation type. The objective of that approach is avoid imposing impractical measures on operators that won’t help reduce accidents.

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