Globe composite image: HAI/Phyllis Utter; photos: left, HAI/Kevin Carter; center-top, Wisk Aero; center-middle, HAI/Lagniappe Studios; center-bottom, iStock/Pakhnyushchyy; right: HAI/Gregg Deacon
VAST provides global forum for sharing safety data, information, initiatives.
There’s a new force in aviation safety: the Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST; learn more at vast.aero). The International Helicopter Safety Foundation recently re-formed under a new charter, with a vision of achieving through cooperation and collaboration a global vertical aviation community with zero fatal accidents.
VAST will act as an essential hub for the vertical aviation community worldwide. By breaking down the artificial silos that exist between the helicopter, unmanned aircraft systems, and autonomous vertical lift aircraft and various mission sectors, such as offshore, air ambulance, and firefighting, VAST will enhance the exchange of safety data, information, and initiatives from the global vertical aviation community, collecting, harmonizing, and disseminating contributions from all of the many stakeholders in vertical aviation safety:
- Regional safety teams in Europe, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Japan, among others
- Industry associations such as HAI, the European Helicopter Association (EHA), and the New England Helicopter Council
- Mission-oriented groups, such as HeliOffshore, the Tour Operators Program of Safety, and the Airborne Public Safety Association
- Manufacturers and other vendors and suppliers to the industry
- Operators and the vertical aviation workforce.
To understand how VAST can address industry safety, it’s necessary to see what preceded it. In 1997, the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security set a 10-year goal to reduce the US fatal aviation accident rate by 80%, while identifying the need for strong government–industry partnerships to support the aviation systems of the future.
The resulting Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) focused its data-driven safety efforts on US Part 121 air carriers, with stunning success. From 1998 through 2008, the team’s efforts reduced the fatality risk in this aviation sector by 83%.
In 2006, the international helicopter community created the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), with a goal of reducing the worldwide helicopter accident rate by 80% in 10 years. Three basic principles of the CAST model were retained to guide the new organization:
- Safety improvement recommendations should be based on accident data
- Safety improvement recommendations should be implemented so as to produce measurable results that can be evaluated for effectiveness
- Stakeholders from that region’s helicopter community should lead the data analysis and resulting safety improvement efforts.
In other words, the IHST relied on regional helicopter safety teams to shape data-driven safety initiatives in their respective areas. The IHST was chartered as a foundation in 2019, becoming the International Helicopter Safety Foundation (IHSF).
The IHSF/IHST has accomplished many of its goals. Regional helicopter safety teams were begun, and many countries and regions in the world have seen a decline in helicopter accident rates.
However, the international rotorcraft industry is on the verge of a dramatic expansion. When the IHST was founded in 2006, advanced air mobility was just a futuristic concept and the FAA had only just begun issuing the first commercial drone permits. As of Jun. 15, 2021, the number of registered commercial drones was 358,137, many of them for vertical lift aircraft. And, as shown by the Leonardo AW609, Sikorsky S-97 Raider, and Bell V-280 Valor, technological innovation is occurring in more traditional rotorcraft as well.
The word “helicopter” is no longer large enough to hold all the types of rotorcraft. It was time to build a bigger tent. To expand its efforts to enhance worldwide safety in all areas of the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) industry, the IHSF organized under a new charter and in 2021 became VAST.
Regional Safety Teams
One thing that won’t change with VAST is the importance of the regional safety teams. These teams of volunteers and other stakeholders in a particular country or region will continue to lead initiatives in their respective areas, with Brazilians in charge of creating safety programs for Brazil, Europeans working to address their local issues, and so on.
However, VAST was created in part to ensure that the regional teams can easily share safety data, information, and initiatives in a central location, an approach that makes more efficient use of safety resources. “The real work will continue to reside within the regional safety teams and global VTOL safety stakeholders,” says Chris Hill, former manager of aviation safety for the US Coast Guard and currently HAI’s director of safety and a member of the steering committee of the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST). “If they’re doing something to enhance safety in our industry, not only do we want them to keep doing it, but we want to provide them with the mechanism to propagate that information across the globe more efficiently.”
Loreto Moraga, chair of the Chilean national helicopter association, Asociación Chilena de Helicópteros (ACHHEL), since 2018 and an attorney specializing in aviation and space law, has been working in the VTOL industry for 15 years as a legal counsel. In her ACHHEL role, Moraga coordinates statistical analysis of Chilean rotorcraft operations and collaborates with the Chilean civil aviation authority while serving as a local point of contact with VAST.
VAST will “allow us to move forward more efficiently by hosting a lot of the material generated by other teams that we can adopt and adapt directly to our environment,” says Moraga. “This implies an enormous cost savings, a relevant issue in smaller markets like ours where financing safety activities is difficult. Likewise, VAST will allow us to avoid duplication with other stakeholders. We will be able to transmit a much more coherent and consistent safety message to the entire industry.”
VAST has already changed ACHHEL’s perspective. “We learned that we needed to redirect our safety efforts to the real risks and not intuitive ones, leaving behind several myths,” Moraga says. Access to the VAST network of global safety stakeholders “will allow us to advance quickly to a stage of contribution, including the possibility of extending our safety advocacy within Latin America.”
Michel Masson, senior safety promotion officer for the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and a European Safety Promotion Network Rotorcraft (ESPN-R) coordinator, sees VAST as a natural evolution in global safety. “We believe in the exchange of good practices and the benefits of sharing experience,” Masson says. “This collaboration has taken different forms and has had different names since I started with EASA in 2006, but the spirit of working in partnership to improve safety has remained a constant.”
The new organization will also further EASA’s goals. “VAST builds on the IHSF and is fully compatible with the priorities set out in the EASA Rotorcraft Safety Roadmap, which aims to reduce accidents by 50% between 2019 and 2029, and expands its scope to vertical aviation,” Masson says. “In safety, cooperation among all stakeholders is key, and VAST is the future of vertical aviation cooperation.”
Nick Mayhew is the USHST industry co-chair and a longtime safety advocate for the helicopter industry. He points to the successful 56 Seconds to Live program as an example of how VAST will enable the sharing of safety resources.
The 56 Seconds program launched with a short video illustrating how quickly a helicopter pilot can experience spatial disorientation after unintentionally entering instrument meteorological conditions (UIMC, also known as IIMC). Since premiering in February, the video has nearly 28,000 views on YouTube. The program also provides pilots with resources to help them avoid or recover from UIMC, including an online course showing how different choices by the pilot in the 56 Seconds video would have affected the outcome.
“We’re eager to share this suite of safety products with the worldwide safety community, and we are already talking to VAST about that,” says Mayhew. “The USHST volunteers worked hard to create these resources that raise pilots’ awareness of the dangers of UIMC and then give them the tools to avoid, recover from, and train for it. Flying into degraded visual environments is a safety issue for pilots all over the world, so why shouldn’t we make these research-based safety tools available to them?”
VAST has already begun to formalize its leadership positions and advisory roles for participating organizations and individuals. The foundation has been laid with the organization’s charter, revealing another way in which VAST differs from the IHST/IHSF.
James A. Viola, HAI’s president and CEO, and Miguel Marin, operational safety chief for the International Civil Aviation Organization, have stepped up to oversee the new organization—Viola as the industry representative and Marin as the representative of the regional safety team. The two played major roles in both drafting the VAST charter and deciding the initial direction the organization will take.
“As a practical matter, safety is operationalized as part of everyone’s daily work. VAST will support the work of the regional safety teams and other stakeholders who concentrate their efforts to help those on the flight line, in the cockpit, and on the shop floor,” says Viola. “At VAST, our role is to enable those teams and stakeholders to communicate and collaborate. I want VAST to become the trusted source for information about VTOL safety across the globe.”
The drive for collaboration on safety is supported by data. “Aviation has always been a global enterprise, and analysis of vertical flight accidents demonstrates that they share the same causal factors, regardless of borders or language,” says Marin. “Through VAST, we will share the modern, data-driven approach to safety with areas that currently lack a regional team. VAST volunteers are already in discussions to set up a regional team for South Africa, and I hope that more will follow.”
The organizational structure of VAST is deliberately flat: Viola and Marin serve as advisors, not executives. A steering committee comprising liaisons to the regional safety teams and other global VTOL stakeholders will set priorities, and HAI staff will carry out some administrative and communications functions.
In addition to its support for regional teams, VAST is looking at several areas where a consistent global approach would lead to improved results, with VAST serving as a collaborative platform for the industry. Presently, Marin and Viola, as the VAST co-advisors, lead three working groups: Safety Promotion, Technology, and Regulations.
For example, VAST could be a clearinghouse for recommended best practices. “There are those who routinely operate offshore, who’ve refined their own procedures, tactics, and techniques,” Hill offers as an example. “But when they operate offshore, how much of that valuable knowledge is being shared across the industry, let alone across the globe? We want to reach out to and extend invitations to all the key players in the industry.”
Another result of this cooperation, Hill says, lies in the development of draft documentation from recommended best practices, essentially turning “80% solutions” into actionable items. Once the FAA, EASA, or other regulatory authority makes the necessary adjustments and adds a new cover page, such proposals can become an advisory circular. These recommended best practices, developed by subject-matter experts, can influence accepted operational standards across the globe.
“We’ve certainly seen examples of this in the past,” says Hill, “where a practice such as, for example, health and usage monitoring systems (HUMSs) and flight data monitoring or flight operations quality assurance (FDM/FOQA) is introduced in one sector and then over time becomes standard across the entire industry.”
Hill believes VAST will further this process. “When you introduce two different worlds in the hopes of extracting a common standard or consensus, you may not get the exact product you’re looking for,” he says. “We’d like to think that VAST can help common sense prevail by providing a source for trusted information and a forum for discussion. VAST can help people understand the reasons why standards differ, and then maybe, through that dialogue, we can arrive at harmonized standards.”
Another VAST initiative could be the world’s first international meeting on vertical aviation safety. Every two years, the FAA hosts the International Rotorcraft Safety Conference. The coronavirus pandemic shifted that event to a virtual format for 2020, but the conference may return as a live event in 2022.
“We think VAST would be the optimal organization to promote [the conference], as well as play a key part in the content development and delivery, which would focus on all aspects of vertical aviation,” says Hill, adding that VAST would serve up a working group of international safety stakeholders to make that happen.
For those who want to support VAST in its efforts to improve safety in the global VTOL community, Hill advises them to “think globally and act locally” by joining their regional safety team or one of the many organizations that partner with VAST (see the list of VAST partners below, or visit vast.aero/the-team). Some of these groups are organized around a particular mission set, such as air tours or law enforcement; others represent the helicopter industry in a particular region or country.
“The local level is where volunteers can have the most impact,” says Hill. “And after your local organization has developed a great safety resource that targets an identified safety issue, please send it to VAST so we can share it with the global industry. Through VAST, those resources can help pilots, operators, and maintenance technicians all over the world.”
VAST Advisors and Partners
VAST’s two advisors are Regional Safety Team Representative Miguel Marin, ICAO, and Industry Representative James A. Viola, HAI.
Below are some of the organizations that will partner with VAST to improve global VTOL safety. This list is accurate as of Jun. 15, 2021.
If your organization would like to join them, please contact email@example.com.
Regional Safety Teams
These teams, which are composed of stakeholders from regional industry and civil aviation and safety authorities, work to improve the safety of civil VTOL operations in their respective regions.
Asia-Pacific Helicopter Safety Team (AHEST)
Brazilian Helicopter Safety Team (BHEST)
Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC)
Asociación Chilena de Helicópteros (ACHHEL)
European Safety Promotion Network Rotorcraft (ESPN-R)
Middle East and North Africa
Global Humanitarian Aviation (GHAO)
New Zealand Helicopter Association (NZHA)
US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST)
Other Global VTOL Stakeholders
In addition to regional safety teams, VAST works with other stakeholders that are working to improve global vertical flight safety, including various industry and regional associations.
Air Tours / Sightseeing
Tour Operators Program of Safety (US)
Emergency Medical Services
National EMS Pilots Association (US)
American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association
Association for Promotion of Helicopter Industry, Japan
Australian Helicopter Industry Association
Brazilian Helicopter Pilots Association
British Helicopter Association
Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa
European Helicopter Association
Helicopter Association International
Helicopter Industry Association (Russia)
Airborne Public Safety Association (US)