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Thursday, July 1, 2010

FAA Chief Babbitt: Good Not Good Enough [Updated]

By Andrew Parker, Managing Editor

During his keynote speech June 8 at Rotor & Wing’s 2010 Safety and Training Summit in Denver, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called for helicopter operators to continue striving for perfection while praising the efforts of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST). He also advocated enhanced training and safety management practices, improved pilot decision-making, more access to helicopter simulators and better maintenance as ways to lower the industry’s accident rate and reach the IHST’s goal of reducing helicopter accidents by 80 percent by 2016.

Randy Babbitt, FAA Administrator, highlighted the efforts of IHST during his keynote speech June 8 at the 2010 Rotor & Wing Safety & Training Summit in Denver. Photo by Andrew D. Parker
“In safety, good enough is never good enough. Greatness is our target here,” Babbitt proclaimed, noting that while helicopter accidents have decreased in recent years, operators need to constantly train and avoid becoming complacent in regards to accident prevention. “The safety record of this industry is absolutely headed in the right direction,” he said. “But when we’re headed in the right direction, that phrase in and of itself is not good enough. We need to keep moving in that direction, and that takes renewed focus, time and time again. We’re never close enough with safety.”

He continued: “Finding ways to improve pilot decision-making, better training, better access to helicopter simulators, adopting safety management practices and improving maintenance practices—all of these things put together add up to a safer operating environment.”

In a rare address to a rotorcraft-specific crowd, Babbitt pointed out that many times, helicopters take on missions that others turn down. “Helicopters are operating in situations where no other vehicles can go. When you’ve exhausted all the other possibilities [and] when all the other options are gone, now comes the helicopter. So by definition it’s a challenging environment.”

He urged operators to use discretion when considering the importance of a particular flight. “This industry is full of dedicated men and women who want to complete the mission, no matter what the weather or the conditions—they want to make that rescue, they want to transport that patient, they want to get that person to the emergency room,” he said. “In intense moments like this, you cannot let that drive overwhelm your sense of knowing what the right thing to do is,” Babbitt continued, adding that it doesn’t make sense to put more people in harm’s way to save one.

“While I appreciate the passion that drives people to want to do good,” he said, “we have to have the discipline to say, ‘I know it’s a terrible situation, but I’m not going to risk more people, and I know where that line is.’ That’s a hard line to follow, a hard line to define and a hard line to live up to, and I appreciate it.” Many helicopter missions require low-level, VFR flight, which is complicated by challenging environments. “Low-level flight does not always offer an envelope of enough altitude and speed to ensure a safe landing if anything goes wrong,” Babbitt said. “You encounter more obstacles and more traffic at low levels—again, that’s where you’re operating, and by definition, that’s where the traffic is and that’s where the obstacles are.”

The helicopter industry “has a great story to tell, and that story, especially over the last few years—we have a knee-jerk tendency toward headlines,” Babbitt explained. “If you think about our overall safety records, they’re remarkable, but they do attract a lot of attention. But despite the handful of highly visible accidents over the past five years, the number of fatal helicopter accidents has decreased by 22 percent compared to the preceding five years. But more important, the fatal accident rate has decreased by more than 40 percent.”

ADS-B in the Gulf

According to Babbitt, the first helicopter operator equipped with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) over the Gulf of Mexico told the controller, who had reported him in radar contact, “that’s the first time I’ve ever heard those words 160 miles from the beach.” Babbitt was a part of launching initial operating capability (IOC) for ADS-B in the Gulf at a ceremony in December 2009. “The Gulf is a huge success story for ADS-B,” he said at the Summit. "The success that we’ve enjoyed out there, to put it into perspective, we are covering 250,000 square miles with the equivalent of full radar coverage, complete radar identification tracking, the autopilots that have ‘ADS-B In’ can see other aircraft, we can fly direct now, we know where everybody is—it’s a huge step forward.”

Babbitt also laid out the business case for ADS-B. “We know it’s safer, we know it’s better, we can navigate, we can surveil, we can separate—we can do all of these things better, but there’s a business case behind [ADS-B],” he said. “Each one of these helicopters is saving almost 100 pounds of fuel per flight, saving about 10 minutes of flying time per flight. That adds up to around 20,000 pounds of fuel we’re saving each month. That’s almost a quarter of a million pounds of fuel on an annualized basis. That’s a lot of fuel. That’s a lot of savings.” Noting that this is just the beginning, the FAA chief concluded that ADS-B “has the ability to save a lot of money, and at the same time, make our operations significantly safer for everybody involved—whether it’s us providing surveillance from the FAA side, or the operators and pilots having much better situational awareness of where they are, and being able to utilize direct routes.”

For clips from Babbitt's speech, go to the Randy Babbitt Keynote video page.

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