Whatever operators are doing to drive the fatal accident rate down needs to continue. But how to leverage and expand that to other areas will be crucial to future improvement.
The US fatal helicopter rate improved from mid-2022 through February 2023, and safety analysts are asking HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 attendees for help in understanding the reasons for that improvement.
The all-hands meeting of the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) on Mar. 6 at HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 in Atlanta included a presentation on monthly rates for fatal accidents involving US-registered rotorcraft for all of 2022 and the first two months of this year. Rates showed a marked improvement in the second half of last year that continued through the first two months of 2023.
“This is really positive news,” said Lee Roskop, the FAA aviation safety coordinator who cochairs the USHST’s Safety Analysis Team with Mona Polson, an engineer at Bell Helicopters. Roskop, who made the presentation, added a key point: “I don’t have the answer to the why.”
He said HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 offered an opportunity while “we’re all together in one building over the course of the next few days to ask ourselves, ‘What did I start different in my organization 10 months ago, a year ago, 18 months ago that maybe has been bearing fruit over the last 6 to 8 months?’ ”
The latest data show that 2022 got off to a good start, with only one fatal accident in January, for a rate of 0.55 per 100,000 flight hours. (That rate, coincidentally, is the USHST’s overall goal for reducing the five-year average for fatal accidents.)
But things worsened from there, spiking with February’s three fatal accidents to a cumulative monthly rate of 1.03 per 100,000 flight hours. Seven more accidents in the first half of 2022 left the cumulative rate at 0.81, about where the full-year rate had been for each of prior four years.
But come July, things improved. “After the June time frame,” Roskop noted, “it’s like a switch clicked in the system.”
Only one fatal occurred each month for July through November, and two in December. That left the cumulative fatal accident rate for the year at 0.67 per 100,000 flight hours. The rate for 2022’s second half worked out to 0.52. “If we can track along that second-half performance, we’re right at the spot where we want to be” in reaching that five-year average of 0.55, Roskop said.
The safety team noted that US-registered rotorcraft experienced no fatal accidents in January or February of this year. “That’s the first time that we had back-to-back January to February with no fatal accidents since 2004,” he said.
“The data suggests that something has changed in the system,” Roskop said, but it does not mean the change is permanent.
Industry and government leaders in 2005 set up the USHST’s predecessor, the International Helicopter Safety Team, to reverse persistently high accident rates in the world and the absence of any trends toward improvement. (Several years ago, the team shifted the focus of its work to the analysis and reduction of fatal accidents.) However, the analysts say that improvements in accident rates often are followed by reversals of the change.
“We have this bad history of making improvements and then giving them back,” Roskop said. A case in point is the back-to-back absence of accidents in January and February of 2004. “Later in the year, we had eight fatal accidents in a month,” he said. “Then we had five fatal accidents in a month.”
The safety team has taken several steps to help pilots and operators avoid fatal accidents. In 2017, the team addressed the top three categories of fatal accidents: crashes involving loss of control in flight, unintended flight into instrument meteorological conditions (UIMC), and collisions with objects during low-altitude operations.
After in-depth analysis to identify the contributing elements of such events, the team’s volunteers developed 16 separate safety enhancements advising pilots and operators how to break the chain of events leading to those accident types. A highlight of that effort was the launch two years ago of the 56 Seconds to Live scenario-based video and training course designed by USHST and HAI to help pilots recognize, avoid, and recover from situations leading to UIMC.
“We need to take the opportunity with this news and really dig in more to the ‘why,’ ” Roskop said. “We’ve seen this success over the last six to eight months,” so whatever operators are doing needs to continue. But how to leverage that and expand it to other areas will be crucial, said Roskop, “so we can continue to drive that fatal accident rate down instead of seeing it go in the opposite direction.”