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With 2018 drawing to a close, it’s time for our annual review of the biggest helicopter stories from the past 12 months. Safety is always a top concern for visitors to verticalmag.com, and this year was no exception — more than half of our most-viewed stories this year touched in some way on the safety of flight. In a year of industry shake-ups, two particularly significant deals also drew thousands of readers to our website, as did our reporting on industry trends with potentially far-reaching impacts. Here, in descending order, are the 10 biggest helicopter stories on verticalmag.com in 2018 (click on the titles to read the original articles).
Since 2015, we’ve been reporting on the sky-high prices charged by some U.S. helicopter air ambulance providers, and the growing pressure from states, insurers, and patients to regulate them. That pressure appeared to be coming to a head earlier this year, when a version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives included language that could have opened the door to state regulation of air ambulance billing. Intense industry lobbying succeeded in striking that language from the version that became law, but the act still provides for the creation of an advisory committee to study the issue, which means that it is likely to remain a hot topic in 2019.
Nearly three years after flight nurse Dave Repsher sustained horrific burns in the crash of a Flight For Life Airbus H125 in Frisco, Colorado, he and his wife Amanda decided they were ready to tell their story. We were honored to have the opportunity to visit with this inspiring couple, who have played a major role in the push for wider adoption of crash-resistant fuel systems (CRFS) in helicopters. A provision that requires all newly manufactured helicopters to be equipped with CRFS made it into the final version of the FAA Reauthorization Act in October.
The news that offshore giant Bristow will be acquiring heavy-lift specialist Columbia Helicopters came as a surprise to many when it was announced in early November. The deal will create the “leading global diversified industrial aviation service company,” according to Bristow CEO Jonathan Baliff, who will be stepping down as CEO and joining Columbia’s board of directors once the transaction is completed on Dec. 31. Among other things, Bristow hopes to find work for its idled fleet of Airbus H225s — which have largely been shut out of the offshore sector — through Columbia’s established relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense.
The fatal crash of a Bell 525 prototype in July 2016 was a tragedy and major setback for the program, which aims to certify the world’s first commercial fly-by-wire helicopter. In January of this year, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its final report on the accident, which found that the crash was caused by unanticipated severe vibrations as the aircraft attempted to recover rotor rpm following a one-engine inoperative (OEI) test at 185 knots. According to Bell, the program team has implemented all required corrective actions and successfully tested them in flight against the same conditions the accident aircraft encountered. The team has now recorded almost 900 flight hours and will begin cold weather testing in early 2019.
After years of allowing the S-300 product line it acquired from Schweizer to languish as an unloved stepchild, Sikorsky announced in January that it was selling the series to Schweizer RSG, a new company affiliated with Rotorcraft Services Group in Fort Worth, Texas. For many S-300 operators who had given up hope on Sikorsky’s willingness to support the aircraft, their first reaction was, “Finally.” However, it remains to be seen how successfully Schweizer RSG can shepherd this legacy series into the future.
All 13 people on board were killed when an Airbus H225 operated by CHC crashed near Turøy, Norway, in April 2016. The accident — in which the main rotor detached from the helicopter, leaving the flight crew with no hope of recovery — resulted in a worldwide grounding of the H225 fleet. Many offshore customers refused to fly in the aircraft even after the grounding was lifted (which is why Bristow and other offshore operators have so many of the model sitting idle). Although Airbus claims to have satisfactorily addressed the safety issues that led to the crash, the Accident Investigation Board of Norway took a somewhat different view in its final report on the accident in July, suggesting that a “permanent solution” to the H225’s woes could require a redesign of the main rotor gearbox.
For generations of pilots who learned to fly on Robinson R22 or R44 helicopters, the importance of lowering the collective at the first sign of low rotor rpm has been seared into their consciousness. That’s no doubt why so many of our readers were interested in reading our review of the HeliTrak Collective Pull Down system, which automates this critical pilot reaction. Our reviewer Terrence Wyman concluded that this simple, relatively inexpensive design “should prove to be a very useful device for safety.”
This nail-biting first-person account by Dan Foulds, a perennial favorite on our website, was originally published in 2016. We included it again on our list this year because of the way we reinvented it for a new audience — our more than 70,000 followers on Instagram. To read the Instagram version of the story, visit our profile @verticalmag and tap on the story highlight titled “Ejection.” The story was appreciated not only by pilots, but by passengers and crewmembers as well; as one of our followers put it, “This was fantastic insight into the mind of the pilot during some stressful decision making.” Watch for more of these Instagram stories in 2019!
No story inspired more passionate debate on our website and social channels than this article about the predicted shortage of helicopter pilots and maintainers in coming years. The story highlights a study released earlier this year by the University of North Dakota and Helicopter Association International, which forecasts a shortage of 7,649 pilots and 40,613 certified aviation mechanics in the U.S. helicopter industry alone between now and 2036. Our readers had plenty of thoughts about the predicted shortage and what needs to be done to make careers in the helicopter industry more viable and appealing — now and in the future.
We reported extensively on the fatal crash in New York City’s East River on March 11, in which five FlyNYON passengers on a doors-off helicopter photo flight drowned when they were unable to free themselves from their supplemental harnesses. In fact, several of these articles were among our most-viewed stories of 2018, but none received more attention than this one, which revealed that pilots had warned FlyNYON of safety issues with its harnesses and emergency cutting tools weeks before the fatal crash. In August, we paid a follow-up visit to FlyNYON’s New Jersey headquarters to learn what changes it had implemented since the crash, but were still left with some concerns. The NTSB investigation into the accident is ongoing.