Sunday, February 28, 2016

Chopper World Pushes Specific Safety Steps: Industry embraces techniques that major airlines have relied on since the 1990s

Helicopter makers are striving to improve their spotty safety record. A tour helicopter crashed in Hawaii in mid-February.

The Wall Street Journal
Feb. 28, 2016 4:28 p.m. ET

The global helicopter industry is striving to improve its spotty safety record, largely by embracing equipment and techniques major airlines have relied on since the 1990s to achieve today’s record-low accident rates.

From voluntary incident reporting to greater reliance on advanced simulators, to an increased focus on pinpointing potential hazards by downloading information from flight-data recorders, the chopper world is turning to tried-and-true safety enhancements.

But widespread adoption of such methods is proving elusive, partly due to the complications of an array of large and small operators engaged in vastly different types of flying.

“We’ve taken a broad approach to reducing accident rates, rather than a very targeted approach at specific industry segments,” said to Lindsay Cunningham, head of flight safety for the U.S. helicopter unit of Airbus Group SE. But now, that is one of the strategies in the process of changing.

For starters, rotorcraft accident-prevention experts are determined to collect more accurate data on the total number of hours flown by nonmilitary choppers in various countries. Without such up-to-date statistics, industry leaders have been frustrated in accurately tracking annual changes in global, or even regional, accident rates.

In addition to gains in the U.S., the latest numbers show some improvements in Canada, Brazil and other countries, according to industry officials. “But the focus is now on the regulatory agencies” to provide accurate data everywhere, said Matthew Zuccaro, chief executive of the industry’s largest international trade association.

Another emerging trend is proactive use of flight-data recorders to dissect dangerous incidents and identify safety hazards. While many new choppers are equipped with the necessary equipment—and easily can obtain software to analyze downloaded information—only a minority of operators are aggressively using those tools.

“Most customers simply don’t do that,” Ms. Cunningham said in an interview last week. At this point, she added, even the majority of law-enforcement agencies use such systems “in a very reactive manner, if at all.”

Mechanical malfunctions are the primary culprit in only about 5% of serious helicopter accidents, according to safety experts. At the same time, the industry continues to rank accidents during training flights as one of the top two categories of all crashes.

Moreover, there is still considerable ambivalence among operators about increasing the use of the most expensive ground-based simulators.

Above all, however, experts agree the human element is the most important variable in boosting safety.

For years, training programs, videos and industrywide slogans have highlighted the mistaken decisions of some chopper pilots to push ahead even in low visibility and other questionable conditions.

A central training principle is encouraging aviators to be more disciplined and cautious when weather or other factors suddenly change, instead of automatically continuing the trip and “making so many decisions on the fly,” according to Bruce Webb, the Airbus helicopter unit’s chief pilot. The aim is to ensure aviators “get over the bravado and machismo” that frequently leads to crashes, he said in an interview.

Compared with helicopter fleets, airlines have a much longer and more successful track record emphasizing the importance of strict adherence to rules and standard operating procedures.

When it comes to instilling professionalism, chopper pilots have to understand more clearly the dangers of intentional violations, according to David Bjellos, a helicopter pilot who runs a corporate-flight department and is active in industry safety groups. But too often, he said, “we don’t know how to fix that.”

Original article can be found here:

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