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A newly-released white paper from Flight Safety Foundation is recommending a five-point approach to combat what it calls the “tragic regularity” of fatal crashes among commercial passenger-carrying helicopters.
Although fatal helicopter accidents have declined over the past 20 years, the rate of decline has leveled off recently. And the rate of fatal accidents involving commercial, passenger carrying helicopter flights is of particular concern. These involve members of the general public and often result in multiple casualties, resulting in intense focus from the media.
According to the Flight Safety Foundation, for hire and air taxi operations have a higher fatal accident rate than the helicopter industry as a whole.
Using data from the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team data, Flight Safety Foundation calculated that commercial operations, including air taxis and for-hire, had a rate of 1.1 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours during the 11-year period from 2009 to 2019. The rate for the overall U.S. civil helicopter fleet was 0.69 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
“Commercial, passenger-carrying missions often are offered by smaller organizations with limited resources, small fleets and less training, and flights are operated by single pilots in lighter, single-engine helicopters that are not equipped with advanced safety equipment,” the paper notes.
Often referred to as a “contributory cause” is “real or perceived pressure — either external or self-imposed,” which can result in “pushing on with a flight when circumstances would normally dictate that the flight be canceled or the aircraft landed as soon as possible.”
The pressure can be directed from an employer or paying customer. Other related issues include pilot training and decision making.
Across visual flight rules (VFR) aviation, one of the leading causes of accidents is inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). This is also true of commercial, passenger carrying helicopter operations. Helicopters that are being used for VFR operations seldom have the instrumentation necessary to deal with a sudden loss of visibility. The end result is often loss of control-in flight due to spatial disorientation and a subsequent crash or controlled flight into terrain which is no longer discernable.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the safety issues facing the commercial VFR helicopter industry,” the white paper notes, suggesting instead a five-point plan to reduce the safety risks. It notes that reducing inadvertent VFR flight into IMC would go a long way toward improving the safety of the commercial helicopter sector.
The plans includes the implementation of regular risk identification and mitigation/management strategies and other tools as part of an effort to improve or develop an organizational safety culture.
Improving pilot decision making and adherence to procedures is another element, as is improved customer education and enhanced oversight from the regulator.
Finally, the Flight Safety Foundation recommends establishing clear operation guidelines and procedures to eliminate pressure on pilots to fly in marginal or deteriorating conditions, and to enable easier and more consistent go/no-go decisions.