Fatal Helicopter Accidents Lower, But Hit Plateau

Credit: Sikorsky

ANAHEIM, California—Despite the high-profile crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, the number of fatal U.S. helicopter accidents has decreased over the past two decades, but hit a plateau in 2018 and 2019. 

The goal for the next five years is to reduce the fatal accident rate by 11% to 0.55 accidents per 100,000 flight hours by 2025, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, lower than its previous five-year goal of 0.62 per 100,000 flight hours.

“It’s entirely possible,” Nick Mayhew, co-chairman of the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), said during a panel discussion on safety. “Our vision remains one of zero accidents.”

The discussion took place during HAI Heli-Expo 2020, sponsored by Helicopter Association International, held here Jan. 27-30.

The world’s largest helicopter show, Heli-Expo 2020 opened two days after the crash of a Sikorsky S-76B that killed Los Angeles Lakers superstar Bryant, his daughter and seven others. Organizers and others at the show have been working to bring the message of safety to the industry. 

The crash also comes as Helicopter Association International, the show’s organizer, has been fighting for more airport access and tackling noise issues. 

High-profile accidents bring more visibility—but not in a positive way—to the industry, said James Viola, the association’s just-named president and CEO. 

 “But if there is any connection to what we’re doing this week, it will show that this industry really goes out of its way to try to make sure we provide the safest industry as possible on the helicopter side of the house,” Viola said.

The S-76 accident and loss of life is a reminder that the industry must continue to deal with Mother Nature and her weather, said Rolland Vincent, aviation consultant at Rolland Vincent Associates. The flight occurred during thick fog, although a cause has not been determined. 

“I imagine that this will be a reminder to HAI attendees of the need for investments and technologies to finally bring the industry forward into a future with much safer skies,” Vincent said. “The mostly taboo topic of air safety is not getting the attention it deserves or the investment that is required today to ensure radically better results. This is going to become Job One with so many more travelers forecasted to fly in urban airspaces in the years to come.”

Mayhew said pilots must develop a culture of safety from the time they take initial training. He advocates “vaccinating” pilots from the start with simulation and live flight training. 

“I don’t believe we use simulators enough in this industry,” he said. 

Each year, the U.S. helicopter industry safely flies more than 3.2 million flight hours. “Every second of every flight must be handled with professionalism,” USHST says. 

The number of fatal accidents declined from 1.27 accidents per 100,000 hr. in 2005 to 0.63 by October 2019. But the number of accidents have held steady in the past two years. In 2018 there were 98 nonfatal helicopter accidents and 24 fatal accidents. In 2019, 95 nonfatal accidents and 21 fatal accidents were recorded, according to USHST.

In a study of 104 fatal accidents, the FAA found the biggest cause was loss of control, followed by helicopters striking an object because of low altitude operations, and unintended flight into instrument meteorological conditions. The three causes made up 55% of the accidents, the FAA says. 

The FAA is developing intervention strategies focused on outreach, policy, technology and equipment, and training, while the USHST is also working on a long list of initiatives.   

In 2019, the USHST developed and promoted a white paper showing how drones can supplement manned helicopters in high-risk operations and environments. It continues to offer safety education and materials during industry events and is ready to release a best practices document with preflight inspection and final walk-around guidelines. In December, it released two new bulletins on the Vortex Ring State and Power Available Limitations. 

USHST is also completing an advisory about the use of simulation to rehearse at-risk scenarios and the development of safe decision making. Another USHST team is working on research papers that provide safety information for pilots about the use of enhanced vision systems and stability systems. 

It will also present a nationwide series of “Go Local” workshops, a 2-hr. session focused on a specific helicopter accident and the lives lost that helps pilots see that many operational decisions are not “black and white” choices. The workshops are planned for 12 cities. 

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.