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Monday, March 1, 2010

European Helo Industry Strives to Improve Safety

At the European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) third Rotorcraft Symposium in Cologne, Germany in December 2009, the European helicopter industry continued an open dialogue to improve safety.

By Thierry Dubois


Initiatives from various parts of the world were discussed at the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)’s third rotorcraft symposium in Cologne, Germany in December. Offshore operations are still a major focus, but some speakers warned that real problems may be somewhat below the radar—at small operators and/or in remote areas.

Vittorio Morassi, chairman of newEHA, gave an updated picture of the European industry. NewEHA (the New European Helicopter Association) is the association that represents European helicopter operators, except emergency medical services (EMS) operators, which are still regrouped in the European HEMS and air ambulance committee (EHAC). Negotiations to integrate EHAC into NewEHA failed at the last minute, in September 2009. NewEHA is based in Cologne.

In Europe, 2,000 companies operate a total of 6,960 helicopters. Two-thirds of them have only one aircraft in their fleet. The European fleet is used for commercial missions (28 percent), public service (21 percent), private flights (16 percent), EMS (10 percent), offshore oil and gas (4 percent) and other operations (21 percent). About half of the fleet is made of single-engine helicopters.

“Aerial work, private, air taxi and corporate operations have suffered a major drop in demand since the economic slump began,” Morassi stated. EMS, firefighting and civil protection operations have been stagnating. Businesses involved in such operations have been doing fine “only where they benefit from stable relationships and long-term contracts.” Offshore flights for oil and gas companies remain steady. “Overall, this situation has caused a lot of job cuts,” Morassi said.

A number of rules impacting helicopters are in the making in the European Union now. “Helicopters are being included in the EU emission trading scheme (ETS) only for political reasons, to please the environmentalists,” Morassi complained.

Regarding CO2 trading, Morassi said helicopters below 5,700 kilos (12,555 pounds) of MOTW are excluded from the European Union ETS. Still to be confirmed is that operators emitting less than 10,000 metric tons of CO2 per year will be allowed to use a simplified reporting procedure. The 10,000-ton threshold equates to 7,100 pounds of fuel used.

The OPS regulation, which EASA is working on for aircraft operations, is at the NPA (notice of proposed amendment) stage. NewEHA has requested that rotorcraft specificity should be taken into account. In response, EASA has appointed two “focal points” for general aviation and helicopters. There also has been a longstanding disagreement on single-engine operations over hostile environments. The industry finds current rules too restrictive. EASA is prepared to reconsider the matter, according to Morassi.

Some 14,000 comments have been received, EASA air operations officer Willy Sigl said. First draft rules should appear in April of this year. Then, in October, the agency will publish a comment response document. The new regulation is to be adopted in 2012.

NewEHA is also requesting to be involved in the development of specific flight and duty time limitations for general aviation and helicopter operations. “Airline rules do not suit our needs. Please keep rules affordable and proportionate,” Morassi urged EASA. He praised EASA and the European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST) for working out “recommendations that are suitable.”

The EHEST, a component of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) that aims at cutting the helicopter accident rate by 80 percent by 2016, is issuing “consolidated recommendations” from a wide-ranging accident data analysis. It is thus encouraging the use of safety management systems (SMS), “based on real safety culture including risk management and codes of practice.” Moreover, operators should be encouraged to establish and apply standard operating procedures (SOPs), EHEST representatives said.

Focus on Training

Another recommendation is to focus on training to improve pilot decision-making before and after inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The importance of mission preparation and the benefits of installing flight data recorders (FDR) and conducting flight data monitoring (FDM, also known as flight operations quality assurance) were highlighted.

Commercial air transport, including EMS, accounted for 19 percent of the accidents EHEST has analyzed. General aviation accounted for 45 percent, while aerial work’s contribution was 32 percent. State flights accounted for four percent. (See chart page 50.)

Robert Carter, principal inspector of air accidents at the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), confirmed that FDRs have been extremely helpful in recent investigations. However, such data “cannot do everything and sometimes make the investigation even more complex,” he said. One probe used data from the helicopter health and usage monitoring system (HUMS). It proved useful but difficult to understand. “Investigations are as complex as ever,” Carter insisted.

More Offshore Ops

Another helicopter that has become common in offshore operations is the AgustaWestland AW139 medium twin. Francesco Paolucci, a flight test engineer with the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) and Nicola Pecile, an Italian Air Force experimental test pilot, explained how the 2006 certification for IFR/night VFR single pilot operations was obtained. The AW139 had been certified for IFR/night VFR dual-pilot and day VFR single pilot operations in 2003. In the meantime, a new, four-display cockpit configuration had become available, making it eligible for extended single-pilot operations.

Paolucci, Pecile and their team focused on pilot workload. The method added the time spent in primary tasks (flight controls) and auxiliary tasks (communication, navigation, etc.) over the total duration of a flight phase, such as approach. The pass/fail criterion was approximately 30 percent spare time available for normal operation.

Therefore, some emergency procedures were revised so the workload never reached 100 percent. “They are now more easily handled by a single pilot,” Paolucci said.

Bernardino Paggi, an AgustaWestland specialist in new flight test methodologies, presented how the AW139 was tested for category A offshore takeoff and landing procedures. EASA approved such operations in July 2009. “We wanted no procedural change between all-engine-operative and one-engine-inoperative,” Paggi emphasized. Quite simply, in case of an engine failure, the pilot should not do anything unusual. Otherwise this could have disturbing aerodynamic effects, Paggi said. AgustaWestland chose to allow some depletion in the rotor’s rotation speed.

Tests showed that tail clearance to the deck’s edge was about 100 meters (330 feet) in the worst-case scenario. This is when the engine fails at 17 feet, followed by the decision to continue takeoff. The takeoff decision point is at 20 feet. The difference between the 17- and 20-foot heights represent the pilot’s reaction time. Should the engine fail at 15 feet, the takeoff should be rejected.

“We chose a low takeoff decision point to ensure the best helideck sight in case of a rejected takeoff,” Paggi said. The 30-foot rotation point is 10 feet higher than the takeoff decision point to allow longer pilot reaction time for continued takeoff. It allows a greater deck edge clearance, too.

At the 15,000-pound MTOW, the maximum drop-down was 40 feet. This provides enough height above the sea, taking into account the deck’s height.

In case of a balked landing, which should take place somewhat laterally away from the deck, the helicopter is never lower than the helideck level, Paggi said.

TCAS

One more valuable insight into offshore safety was given by Bristow head of centralized engineering Mark Plunkett, who detailed how a second-generation traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS II) was fitted onto a helicopter—an AS332 Super Puma. Such an installation was until recently deemed impossible. Regulation states that helicopters cannot comply with TCAS II avoidance procedures, due to a lack of performance.

Yet, there is a need. First-generation TCAS can’t be relied on for evasive maneuvers. It is just considered an aid to visually spotting traffic. Yet, in the North Sea, “visibility is not great,” as Plunkett put it. The need is widespread. In Nigeria, there were 32 airproxes in a few years in the early 2000s.

Chart on the top shows that commercial air transport, including helicopter EMS, accounted for 19 percent of the accidents EHSAT analyzed, with general aviation accounting for 45 percent and aerial work at 32 percent. Incidents most likely occurred during enroute phase of flight, followed by approach/landing, maneuvering and takeoff, as shown in bottom chart. Courtesy of the European Helicopter Safety Team (EHSAT).
Bristow and Rockwell Collins engineers proved the operator’s helicopters can perform as required. They found a place to install the antenna, behind the main rotor. In flight tests, they demonstrated the absence of any blanking. They were awarded the first EASA supplemental type certificate (STC) ever for a TCAS II on a helicopter. The first TCAS II-equipped Super Puma started operating in the spring of 2008.

Bristow is now moving to other types. A Sikorsky S-92 with the antenna located above the windshield is close to flight testing. There are also plans for another Super Puma variant and the Sikorsky S-76. What about OEMs offering TCAS II on new helicopters? “There was skepticism but manufacturers’ interest is growing,” Plunkett said.

ADS-B

Offshore safety was decidedly a major focus at the symposium, as FAA rotorcraft directorate manager Mark Shilling gave an update on the experimental period that began in December for the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) system in the Gulf of Mexico. It is hoped to improve traffic and weather information for helicopters flying to and from offshore rigs. Due to the distance from the shore, there is very limited radio coverage and no radar coverage. Position and weather reporting have been continuing issues. Moreover, instrument conditions exist frequently.

Yet, the Gulf of Mexico is the place for some 3,000 operations per day for the U.S. only, Shilling said. To report helicopter progress on its route, the existing process is “convoluted,” Shilling said, as it involves satellite phones. To ensure aircraft separation, the airspace is divided into grid squares of 10 nm by 10 nm. The resulting air traffic control (ATC) capacity is very small—10 aircraft at a time.

The FAA and local operators place great hopes in ADS-B. The relatively simple system has been used by some fixed-wing aircraft operators. It periodically transmits information without any pilot or operator input. The position and the velocity vector are derived from the GPS. The transmitted information is available to anyone with the appropriate receiving equipment.

The painstaking grid scheme thus becomes useless. The main challenge is not to equip helicopters but offshore platforms. Relays are needed on the surface but space is scarce on the rigs. Final rules are to be issued in this month.

Maintenance Challenges

Giving a different mood to the symposium, Christophe Cubières, a Bureau Veritas senior engineer, pointed out that the real world is quite different from the regulators’ expectations. Bureau Veritas has audited 45 rotorcraft operators in recent years. These audits took place in Europe, Russia, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Cubières and his team have seen recurrent weaknesses in quality assurance. “It is supposed not only to survey the compliance of the organization to the regulation but also to measure and improve its performance,” Cubières pointed out. Except for large operators, SMS will remain a “dusty and pre-formatted book on a shelf,” Cubières worried, due to a lack of knowledge and insufficient resources.

Maintenance training is noted to be “weak.” Cubières sees a lack of formalized standards. He also emphasized a lack of records.

In Europe, EASA should bring national authorities closer to operators, Cubières suggested. It also should be “more involved in practical airworthiness matters.”

David Downey, Bell Helicopter’s vice president for flight operation/safety, expressed a concern that the three major authorities frame airworthiness directive (AD) compliance as if there is a major airline maintenance organization capability. “The infrastructure for engineers (maintenance personnel) to actually comply with alert service bulletins outside of North America and the EU is very different. There are 120 countries or so where Bell has helicopters.”

There is still no Internet access in many places. “If an operator is flying out in remote areas—it can take a year before airworthiness directives actually get to a small operator flying seismic surveys in Papua New Guinea,” Downey told Rotor & Wing. In Nepal, the national aviation authority only employs two people to oversee commercial operations, according to Downey.

At a small operator, a single person can be both the pilot and the mechanic. Therefore, Bell Product Support strives to make maintenance as easy as possible for these operators. “We try to avoid special tools like an expensive magnifier. We try to use tools the operator can find in his standard toolbox or can be locally procured,” he summarized. One of Bell’s ongoing safety initiatives is the development of a cockpit information recorder. It can be used for flight data monitoring (i.e. quality assurance) and accident investigation. A feature is that images of the instrument panel can be read by optical recognition software and in turn, can generate graphs.

Simulation

Could flight simulators contribute to the targeted safety improvement? Thales Training & Simulation program manager for FSTD (flight simulation training device) development Bernard Del Ghingaro believes so. He explained how and why the use of simulators may well grow from small to significant.

“Training is the top category for the EHEST’s recommendations,” he said. One benefit of using simulators is helicopters are thus kept for revenue flights. Moreover, the instructor commands the environment, notably in terms of traffic and weather. Simulators also enable safer training when it comes to tailrotor failure, entry into IMC and autorotations. Still, in a full flight simulator, the trainee will be closer to the reality of a malfunction.

“In a real helicopter, malfunctions are fake. In a simulator, malfunctions are real,” Del Ghingaro said.

Yet, in Europe, only 14 full flight simulators can be found for civil helicopters. “Historically, the cost ratio between FSTDs and real aircraft has not been as attractive as for airplanes,” Del Ghingaro said.

This may be changing. FSTDs are becoming cheaper to use, according to Del Ghingaro. Simultaneously, FSTD standards are becoming more harmonized [see related story on page 12].

Technology is helping, too. Simulating the flight of a helicopter is highly complex. Now, the software and hardware to run these real-time models are available at lower cost.

Similarly, visual aspects are more important for helicopter operations, which take place closer to the ground. Simulators thus need larger fields of view and better details. “Visual system technology is now available to provide high-fidelity helicopter training,” Del Ghingaro said.

SMS and ISBAO

Brian Humphries, who is both the chairman of the British Helicopter Association (BHA) and the CEO of the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), presented the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) as a proven SMS approach available to the helicopter industry. This kind of effort is worth it, he insisted. For example, the fatal accident rate in the North Sea has been halved since the 1980s, notably due to the use of SMS. IS-BAO is suitable to both small and large operators.

Humphries introduced IS-BAO as a professional code of practice. A report analyzed 297 business aviation accidents and determined that more than one-third could have been prevented, if the operator had implemented IS-BAO, Humphries asserted. “Insurance companies are starting to understand by cutting premiums,” he said.

IS-BAO has been in use for fixed-wing operators for some time, and “minimal adjustment” is needed for the helicopter industry. IS-BAO is based on ICAO standards and recommended practices. It also draws from corporate best practices, regulations and guidance. Finally, it tailors ISO9000 principles to aviation. It is already recognized as a standard by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN).

For successful implementation, “You need commitment from the top,” Humphries emphasized. Implementation starts with a safety risk profile and gap analysis. Hazard identification, analysis and mitigation then becomes a continuous process. IS-BAO was developed and is administered by the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC). IBAC is a council regrouping 15 business aviation associations from around the wold. It represents business aviation at ICAO.

There are now more than 200 business aviation operators registered. For newcomers, support is available from other IS-BAO registered organizations and IBAC experts. There are approximately 100 auditors around the world, accredited and monitored by IBAC.

Unmanned Ruling

EASA rulemaking officer David Haddon unveiled EASA’s philosophy in a sector that could become significant over the coming decades—unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). There are currently 257 unmanned rotorcraft types at various stages of development or in service in the world. A notable portion of them are candidates for civil roles, he said.

“Their safety is not demonstrated but manufacturers face a Catch-22 situation,” Haddon pointed out. Regulators are not willing to develop rules before a need is established for such aircraft. But these companies do not want to invest without the assurance a design can be certified and operated in a civil activity, Haddon stressed.

“EASA wants to break this Catch-22 situation,” he said. A principle is that base certification specifications will be chosen from kinetic energy equivalent. A lot still has to be worked out. For example, what could be safe separation distances?

“EASA is committed to develop rules for civil UAS but they will be allowed to operate only if they demonstrate equivalent safety to manned aircraft,” Haddon stated. He insisted that the industry must get it right the first time.

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