The (NTSB) added helicopter operations to this year’s “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety improvements, citing concerns that nearly 1,500 helicopters have crashed over the past decade.
The 2014 list, released Jan. 16, continues to highlight general aviation safety, including a special focus on communication of weather hazards. The rest of the list covers a range of safety concerns in other modes of transportation, and one general across-the-board safety concern involving occupant protection.
As for this year’s inclusion of helicopters, the safety board says: “Operational issues have led to an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents in the last 10 years. There is no simple solution for reducing helicopter accidents, but safety improvements to address helicopter operations have the potential to mitigate risk to thousands of pilots and passengers each year.”
NTSB notes that 1,470 helicopter accidents occurred between January 2003 and May 2013. Those crashes led to 477 fatalities and 274 injuries, and came during a time of “overwhelming growth and demand” for emergency medical services, law enforcement support, electronic newsgathering, air tours, and offshore oil and gas support, among other rotorcraft uses.
These operations are conducted in a range of environmental conditions, such as in poor weather, at night or at unfamiliar landing sites. NTSB points to a September 2004 air tour crash involving a pilot who became disoriented after flying into a turbulent area with reduced visibility in Kalaheo, Hawaii. The board also cites the June 2009 crash of a New Mexico State Police helicopter that crashed after taking off from a remote mountainous landing site on a dark, windy night.
NTSB has issued more than 100 safety recommendations on helicopter-specific issues. The 2009 accident, along with two subsequent ones involving a medical transport flight and an air tour, combined for 27 of those recommendations.
Manufacturers, operators, and training and regulatory agencies must collaborate to help stem the accident rate, the safety board says. “These types of accidents will continue to occur if a concerted effort is not made to improve the safety of helicopter operations,” NTSB says.
The board is pushing for the use of safety management systems that incorporate risk management practices, especially involving inspections and maintenance. NTSB also believes the industry should adopt best practices for maintenance and operations, including duty-time limitations. Helicopter emergency medical operations should adopt flight-risk evaluation programs, formalized dispatch and flight following procedures.
The safety board also recommends that operators ensure their pilots have access to training for inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions, autorotations and other scenarios. NTSB also advocates crash-resistant flight recorder systems for helicopters.
General aviation safety returns to the “Most Wanted List” for the third consecutive year. The inclusion of GA safety follows a year in which NTSB,and industry made a concerted push to highlight common safety areas that could be addressed, along with efforts to gather data, and rewrite certification rules to bring safety equipment to market sooner. NTSB additionally has issued two separate batches of safety alerts covering general aviation issues.
In this year’s list, the safety board focuses specifically on weather, a frequent cause of or contributing factor in accidents. The agency specifically expresses concern about the dissemination of weather information. “While having weather information available to pilots, air traffic controllers, and meteorologists is crucial, improper understanding and misutilization of this information can prove just as dangerous (if not more dangerous) as not having that information at all,” the safety board says.
Improper information can give pilots a false sense of confidence or impair the ability of controllers to help pilots avoid poor weather. NTSB argues that to improve performance on weather-related issues, “training, improved information-gathering and improved dissemination must all occur.“