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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Safety: Challenges Ahead

James T. McKenna

THE END OF THIS MONTH MARKS THE SECOND ANNIVERSARY of what has proven to be a remarkable event.

On Sept. 26-29, 2005, more than 260 representatives of manufacturers, operators, regulators, safety investigators, and military services gathered in Montreal for the International Helicopter Safety Symposium. Spurred in part by a chronic accident rate among U.S. emergency medical service operators and a renewed safety push by the offshore community, that meeting ended with an ambitious goal. Most attendees agreed that, for the helicopter industry to prosper, its accident rate should be slashed 80 percent by 2016.

A similar group is headed this month to Montreal for the second such symposium and an update on efforts to achieve that goal. As they gather, members of what has become the International Helicopter Safety Team know they have an impressive list of achievements behind them. But they also know that the toughest work lies before them if they are to achieve a fundamental improvement in rotorcraft safety. They must persuade the majority of those in the industry to think differently about how they operate helicopters.

"It’s not about more technology and more boxes," said Matt Zuccaro, president of the Helicopter Assn. International and co-chair of the international team. "It’s about a cultural change among owners, operations managers, and pilots."

Team members have focused since late 2005 on detailed analysis of nearly 200 of helicopter accidents dating back to 2000, with the objective of unmasking the best means of preventing their recurrence. The analysis subgroup is to turn over its work at this year’s meeting to a second group. The Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team is to then use those findings to come up with suggestions for greatly enhancing helicopter safety that operators can use in the field every day. That’s no small challenge, given the great diversity of helicopter operators and the independent and "can-do" streaks that run through them.

Whether or not the international efforts to date have an effect on the safety record "will depend on the Joint Helicopter Safety Implementation Team," said Bob Sheffield.

Managing director of Shell Aircraft, Ltd., which manages transportation support for Shell’s offshore oil and gas activities, Sheffield is a member of the international safety team’s executive committee. He also is a leading helicopter safety advocate, and led an effort at Shell to prod helicopter companies to improve the safety of services they sold to Shell.

The international team’s work to date is impressive. Analysis subgroup members volunteered thousands of labor hours to dissect accidents. Regional safety efforts have been launched in India, Australia, Asia, Brazil, and Europe. "The mere fact that people are talking about it is a major change," Zuccaro said.

But that work will mean little if the average operator doesn’t eventually join the effort.

For a full discussion of the International Helicopter Safety Team’s work and its impact to date on individual operators (and to share your thoughts and comments on the effort), join us on our Web site.

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