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Friday, December 1, 2006

Year in Review: Safety and Speed

By James T. McKenna

2006 has been a year of learning the lessons of disasters small and large and laying the groundwork for future success.

HOW DO YOU SUMMARIZE A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF THIS INDUSTRY?

There is a great deal going at any time, and 2006 has been unusually busy — the sustained pace of combat operations, the growth of offshore support and EMS missions, a number of new aircraft programs, the tempo of manufacturing to support all that, and the challenge of maintaining that bustle while addressing significant safety concerns. Throw in an historic strike or two — Sikorsky’s first in 45 years and helicopter pilots’ first ever, by most counts (at PHI) — and you’ve got the ingredients for a hectic year.

So, again, how do you tie all that together? As is often so with a writer, the answer just popped into my head. Actually, what popped in was the image of that cover you passed on the way here (or something not nearly as good as what our art director, Rhonda Scharlat Hughes, came up with): the main and tail rotors, which lie at the heart of efforts to make rotorcraft both safer and faster. Safety and speed seem to me to be the common elements of 2006’s events.

Safety, of course, is the foundation of all we do in aviation. But it is especially pertinent this year, as the international rotorcraft community pursues what has become a global goal to reduce helicopter accidents 80 percent in 10 years. There is a growing agreement that the rotorcraft industry can’t get much bigger unless it finds a way to get a whole lot safer.

The International Helicopter Safety Team, which leads that charge, has done good work. The most impressive measure of it, and the best indicator of that growing agreement, to me is this: team members meet every month for several days to review analyses and debate the causes of individual helicopter accidents. To a person, they are specialists volunteered by their employers to the effort. They still do full-time work for the boss and have their own lives. In between their meetings, each is tasked with picking apart a bunch of accidents for the next gathering’s grist. Imagine taking on, with your boss’ backing, that commitment of time and effort. This is a serious endeavor.

Safety goes beyond that, though. It is why helicopters are in Iraq carrying troops above treacherous highways, why they are so critical to disaster-relief efforts, and why the U.S. Air Force is getting a new combat-search-and-rescue helicopter.

In those cases, speed often equals safety. But also for the health of this industry, its leaders realize, rotorcraft need to fly faster. Numerous research efforts, not the least of which is Sikorsky’s X-2 initiative, aim to enable that and permit the next generation of rotorcraft — commercial and military alike — to move us faster and safer, wherever we are going.

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