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Q&A: Matt Zuccaro: Rotorcraft Safety, Katrina and ADS-B

By David Jensen | February 1, 2006
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In the aviation menagerie, the helicopter is clearly a different animal. It performs many functions that other air vehicles cannot--for example, landing on offshore oil rigs. Rotorcraft are particularly beneficial during rescue operations, as was evident during Hurricane Katrina. Helicopter pilots use some of the same avionics their fixed-wing brethren employ but in a different environment and for different missions. To discuss the civil helicopter market, the avionics it uses, the challenges it faces, and the contribution rotorcraft made during Katrina, we talked to Matt Zuccaro, the president of the Helicopter Association International (HAI). HAI represents the civil helicopter operators and has about 600 members worldwide.

Avionics: Is the helicopter industry healthy?

Zuccaro: It's looking good. The trending is up, and we're optimistic. The offshore oil support industry internationally is doing very well. There's been a resurgence in corporate rotorcraft use. And with 9/11 and other events, the security and law enforcement use of rotorcraft has increased dramatically.

Avionics: But there have been safety issues and an initiative to reduce the helicopter accident rate by 80 percent in 10 years.

Zuccaro: That was put forth at the Montreal safety conference that was sponsored by AHS [American Helicopter Society] and HAI, with manufacturers and industry participants. Out of that it was decided that this issue should be addressed aggressively, internationally, and to formulate a working executive committee. That committee had its first meeting [in November 2005], and it was decided to establish a program in which we would collectively take all the information about all the accidents and abnormal operational occurrences and compile a database and analyze the information.

We're also trying to identify the economic benefits of doing this and how [data analysis] impacts the economic viability of the industry in terms of reduced insurance costs, avoiding litigation and the efficiency of not having the loss of an airframe, which gives you a loss in revenue. There are direct economic benefits that we want to tie in, as well.

Right now, the way it's structured, there will be two [commitee] co-chairs; one will be an FAA representative and the other an HAI representative.

Avionics: Who will compile the data?

Zuccaro: It will be done through committees, which include [representatives from] the manufacturers and the operators. And that will be managed through HAI and AHS, with assistance from all the people in the committees.

Avionics: The emergency medical services (EMS) market is a safety concern, right?

Zuccaro: That's correct. It's also important to point out that EMS helicopters are transporting tens of thousands of people and saving lives every day. But it's still not acceptable to have these accidents and incidents. We don't know what the causes are at this point, and we want to know. HAI, through its Safety Committee and Air Medical Committee, is in the process of writing an overview report of our thoughts on the subject and suggestions that might address it.

Avionics: Could avionics help mitigate this safety problem?

Zuccaro: Yes. You have to take into consideration the mission profile. You're getting short-notice flights in conditions that vary. You're making off-site landings at places you probably haven't been to before, and you're dealing with weather issues.

Can technology improve in that effort? Well, one thing that caught my attention is some of the aircraft involved in these accidents had some of the latest technology on them already. Part of our safety initiative is to see how those systems affect or not affect the accident. What role did they play, if any?

Avionics: Do avionics present too much data to pilots?

Zuccaro: I know there must be a break-point. How much time does the pilot take to interpret and apply that data? That's something that will be studied closely, to find out.

What's a wish list? Put the data up in a way that requires minimal interpretation/application effort for the pilot--that the data is distilled to the point that he gets the final product that he wants.

Avionics: Do you feel avionics are de-signed too exclusively for fixed-wings?

Zuccaro: The technology and the information it provides is what it is. Maybe we need to look at the way the pilot interacts with the avionics. But [equipage is] a decision that has to be made by each operator, based on a lot of things. One is the type of operation. Are we strictly VFR or in a VFR/IFR [visual/instrument flight rules] environment? Are we in a mountainous area or an urban setting? Do we have a fast-changing weather environment, and do we have one pilot or two? You come up with a matrix of the avionics needed.

Avionics: What about safety among Gulf of Mexico offshore operators?

Zuccaro: The offshore oil production support industry is one of the safest segments in the helicopter industry. But within the last year there's been an unusual number of accidents/incidents.

Another affiliate of HAI, the Helicopter Safety Advisory Council, comprises all the operators [in the Gulf of Mexico area] and the oil companies. They initiated a special study group and looked at these accidents in concert with FAA. They addressed such issues as human factors and equipment, and now they're beginning to finalize the recommended practices and procedures.

But keep in mind that they've got one of the best systems to address this. For example, all [offshore operators] have developed safety management systems. They all have dedicated departments of safety with qualified individuals who are the directors of safety.

Avionics: Aren't the operators seeking a common weather reporting system?

Zuccaro: The operators in the Gulf of Mexico have a nice program of available weather information that is shared among themselves. The program you're speaking about relates to FAA's ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast] initiative and potentially replacing some of the surveillance activity [in the Gulf of Mexico] with ADS-B.

One of the initiatives is to address the en route structure of the national airspace system in the Gulf. ... [FAA has] a program that seeks cooperation with the oil service companies that manage the offshore rigs to place some of the ADS-B equipment on the rigs for maximum coverage and benefit of service. The low-flying helicopters, operating both VFR and IFR, can get the benefit of the enhanced weather reporting capabilities of ADS-B, as well as the communications capabilities. And that's just an outgrowth of the fact that the operators are going farther out into the Gulf of Mexico.

FAA, HAI and the operators in the Gulf of Mexico are working on the program.

Avionics: What is the program's status?

Zuccaro: Conversations are going on, and it's our understanding that by the first half of [2006] the executive committee at FAA, along with the study groups for ADS-B, will be making a determination to allocate funds and extend that program into the Gulf of Mexico.

Keep in mind, we've already had initiatives with ADS-B programs in the New York metro area. The Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which is an affiliate of HAI, worked with FAA and the ADS-B office. They placed ADS-B units at the three heliports in New York, and there are conversations now to get equipment installed in some of the aircraft [flying into New York] to start testing the system. That program just started; they just got the [ADS-B] units at the heliports a few months ago.

Avionics: How widely used are avoidance systems on helicopters?

Zuccaro: They're used a fair amount in congested areas. The systems are starting to be put into the offshore fleet more and more and also in the corporate environment, operating in the Northeast Corridor and overseas. Terrain/altitude alerting devices are pretty much becoming standard on new helicopters. Most of the twin-engine helicopters for the IFR operating environment have that equipment.

Avionics: Aircraft tracking is an important capability in the industry, right?

Zuccaro: A lot of operators are putting in satellite-based flight following systems. That seems to be more and more common in the larger fleets, to keep track of aircraft, particularly those operating offshore. And you have text messaging, too, between the flight crew and the operator base. Both the operator and client can watch the aircraft activity, for better management and control, and to track the flight times for billing purposes.

Avionics: How widespread are electronic flight bags (EFBs) in the industry?

Zuccaro: Well, it's not. PHI [Petroleum Helicopters Inc.] is in the lead in that area. It's a technology that has a lot of potential in that you can use it easier in the flight planning phase. In the IFR conditions you have to deal with the maps and charts instead of having everything in one location electronically. [Pilots] might also find that [EFBs] provide better visual acuity in the cockpit versus trying to see charts during evening hours.

Avionics: Helicopters also are being designed to operate fly-by-wire.

Zuccaro: Yes, Sikorsky [Aircraft] just opened up its fly-by-wire lab for the S-92 military derivative. They will be building those aircraft fly-by-wire. And there's been work in that area for the NH-90, EH-101 and Bell 412. So it's not a new initiative, but it's moving much closer to being real-world. In the civil arena, I think [fly-by-wire] won't be out of the question in five to 10 years.

Avionics: Is the helicopter industry interested in wide and local area augmentation (WAAS and LAAS) of GPS?

Zuccaro: Very much so. It gives us greater integrity and availability. That allows us to get more accuracy, and then, in the IFR environment, it allows precision approaches at lower minimums.

Case in point: in the Gulf of Mexico, in which they have the IFR grid system, where they're shooting approaches, if you get WAAS/LAAS you can get greater accuracy. The same thing applies to the Northeast [United States], where they do extensive IFR operations. Helicopters operators would much rather conduct IFR operations instead of dealing with the weather factor in VFR.

Avionics: Are there other technologies to keep an eye on?

Zuccaro: HUMS [health and usage monitoring] has been beneficial in terms of maintenance of the aircraft and safety. Moving down the road, I see these systems becoming standard in helicopters. It will be more of a requirement by the clients in a lot of segments in the industry--even to operate the aircraft more economically.

Avionics: What would the helicopter market seek from the avionics industry?

Zuccaro: We would like it to recognize the uniqueness of the helicopter in that it mostly is in low-altitude operations, most of it off-site in unprepared locations, and a lot of the operations are in high-density locations, be it the Northeast or offshore.

And I think both sides [operators and manufacturers], need to do a better job of communicating with each other, so we understand what it takes to develop these systems and they understand the environment the community works in, so we can produce a better product. I think our relationship with the AHS contributes to this. We represent the operators and they represent the engineers.

Avionics: Tell us about rotorcraft use after Katrina.

Zuccaro: That event, as tragic as it was, was one of the finest hours for the helicopter industry. It proved that helicopters save lives. They brought relief in terms of food, supplies and medicines to those who were trapped. Also firefighting and aerial surveillance. Aircraft with external loads were able to repair the levees, and commercial helicopters assisted in the rebuilding of the communications networks and utilities.

Avionics: What about the challenges?

Zuccaro: The challenge was to coordinate with all the other assets. The areas we're concerned about are in communications. The systems were all down, so there was difficulty in co-agency communications. Some aircraft were hovering over ground crews, and [the pilots] couldn't talk to them. Both [ground and air crews] had some means of communications, but they were not on the same frequencies.

Avionics: Are you looking for ways to improve this situation?

Zuccaro: Yes, we've have a study group in the HAI. We look forward to getting together with the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to come up with a work group and address the issues of better communications. Is there a technology in which you can synthesize communications where needed, to get a common frequency set up for the response and designate it for events such as this? Either that or the ability to set up mobile control centers that can do the [com] relaying in safe and efficient manner?

We have an initiative in house. We're getting information from the operators who were on site. And then we'll arrange meetings with the appropriate people in FEMA and DHS.

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