Monday, February 29, 2016

Helicopter Makers to Revisit Safety Initiatives: This week’s meeting comes after years of lackluster results marked by high fatality rates

The chopper industry has stubbornly high fatality rates. Firefighters responded after a rescue helicopter crashed in Colorado last July.

The Wall Street Journal
Feb. 28, 2016 12:54 p.m. ET

Helicopter manufacturers and operators from around the globe will gather this week to revamp safety initiatives, after years of lackluster results marked by stubbornly high fatality rates.

Industry leaders are quietly scaling back internal projections for reducing the frequency of crashes, while explicitly shifting focus to emphasize specific accident categories and industry segments, according to officials involved in the discussions.

Despite new procedures, enhanced technology and stepped-up training including urging pilots to be extra cautious when flying around bad weather, accidents involving nonmilitary choppers remain significantly more frequent than previously projected. The industry has failed to meet its own goal of achieving an 80% reduction in total world-wide crash rates over the past decade.

“We fell far short, but we view this as a journey” that is akin to a marathon, according to Matthew Zuccaro, president and CEO of Helicopter Association International, the largest trade association.

With more than 15,000 attendees expected at the opening of the Heli-Expo conference in Louisville, Ky., on Monday, Mr. Zuccaro and other industry leaders will avoid issuing any revised targets for safety improvements and instead stress their long-term “vision” of achieving zero accidents. But behind the scenes, according to these officials, rotorcraft experts have sharply reduced their expectations of likely safety gains through the end of the decade.

The updated goal for interim improvements over the next few years, according to the officials, is now a less ambitious 20% or 25% drop in the frequency of fatal crashes from current levels—both in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, future safety programs will place greater emphasis on reducing deadly events along with specific hazards faced by industry segments, rather than simply calling for across-the-board improvements in generic accident rates.

“These conversations have been going on” to recalibrate internal projections, Mr. Zuccaro said in an interview, adding that the more modest goals are “simply a good-faith effort” to estimate the likely pace of progress without publicly embracing percentages. Unlike the 2006 to 2016 goals he helped put in place and then publicized, Mr. Zuccaro now says,  “I am not comfortable running around saying we are going to achieve [a specific] reduction” in crash rates.

Since the International Helicopter Safety Team was formed in late 2005 to map out safety programs, the overall improvement in global accident rates is closer to an estimated 35%, with some years and regions faring significantly worse, though statistics are unreliable. U.S. results have been verified as stronger during the same period. They indicate a roughly 50% drop from the 2001 to 2005 baseline accident rate, slipping to under four crashes per 100,000 flight hours. Most of those gains, however, occurred at the beginning of the effort, and accidents actually spiked in 2012 and 2013.

The total U.S. accident rate in 2015 ended up being double the original target, with just under one in seven crashes involving fatalities, these officials said. Both of those safety metrics are somewhat improved from 2014, though final numbers slated to be released at the conference show little improvement from levels recorded three years before that.

Helicopters are much more prone to crashing than fixed-wing aircraft because they routinely fly close to the ground near potential deadly obstacles; many are operated by a single pilot, rather than the two-person crews found in cockpits of airliners and business aircraft; and they perform a much wider array of roles, from flying into remote mining areas to being used as air ambulances that often transport patients from unfamiliar locations in bad weather.

Last year, the accident rate for all airlines flying jets and turboprops world-wide was one badly damaged or destroyed plane for every 3.1 million flights. Or using a different data set, there were 136 fatalities out of more than 3.5 billion passengers. The chopper goals were developed using the concept of industry-government cooperation championed by U.S. airlines.

But safety experts are particularly frustrated because the frequency of fatal helicopter accidents—which grab the most headlines and should yield the most important lessons—has hardly budged world-wide since the middle of the last decade. By contrast, the global airline industry reached a milestone in 2015, when not a single passenger died as a result of a jetliner crash anywhere in the world.

The helicopter metrics themselves have become points of controversy among various industry officials and groups, with some arguing that a blanket goal of zero accidents—without any timeline or guideposts along the way—isn’t realistic or helpful. On the other hand, Mike Allen, president of domestic air medical services for Air Methods Corp., is part of the faction that supports a zero-accident perspective. “No accident is acceptable,” he says, emphasizing that setting such high expectations is essential to promoting cultural change. “But you do have to measure your progress toward that goal.”

A big part of safety depends on affecting the behavior of private chopper pilots who together account for nearly one out five accidents, as well as influencing smaller operators with just a handful of aircraft. One senior industry safety official describes it as a problem of “reaching the unreachable,” because such aviators tend to sign up for formal training only when prodded by insurance carriers.

Autopilots provide another important safety boost. “It’s definitely something we’re looking at for our single-engine helicopters,” says Lindsay Cunningham, director of flight safety for the U.S helicopter unit if Airbus Group SE. Already, she says, “more and more of air-medical customers are installing them.” But so far, it is estimated that only one out of five helicopter ambulances across the U.S. is equipped with such devices, and retrofit costs may be prohibitive for recreational pilots or small commercial outfits.

The conference will provide another example of industry shifts. For the first time, exhibitors of drone hardware will be part of the Heli-Expo gathering. And leaders of Helicopter Association International are expected to admit drone makers and operators as members of that trade association, an influential group that historically represented only manned choppers.

Original article can be found here:

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