Safety in Helicopter Operations

Helicopter operations have a higher accident rate than fixed-wing. To understand why, one has to understand the differences in operations.

The benefit with helicopters is their ability to hover, take off and land without infrastructure. Therefore, there are a variety of helicopter operations with the resultant variety of safety issues. There is no "single fix" to helicopter safety.

Helicopter operations can be divided into three categories:

  • A to B passenger operations. These are similar to the equivalent fixed-wing operations, with with similar safety issues and their solutions. With smaller passenger operations, the pilot also handles the passengers, with no ground staff or cabin crew support and often passengers sit next to the pilot. However, when the pilot is under pressure, this situation is sub-optimal. To avoid eroding safety margins, better operational control and support is needed.
  • Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) and Search and Rescue (SAR) operations have no schedule and flights are usually to a place with no infrastructure. Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) and loss of control due to degraded visual conditions are the main risks. The changes necessary to improve safety levels may be the same for fixed-wing, but this is not always the case. A solution would be to better target training towards specific risk to HEMS and SAR operations. One example might be that dangerous goods training, which is mandatory but rarely a problem in these operations, could be replaced by training obstacle avoidance or something more relevant to the operational risks.
  • The third category is aerial-work. The main safety issue is the pressure to complete the task. In this case, pilot input to regulations for the setting of standards would be a major improvement to aerial-work safety levels.

Helicopter safety regulation also suffers from a lack of data. Small helicopters are not equipped with FDR or CVR. Light weight, low cost CVR/FDRs would be beneficial to understand the chain of events, as helicopter accidents seldom have the impact forces or post crash fires of fixed wing accidents. The heritage of standards and operational procedures for fixed wing operations highlights the lack of specific rules for helicopter operations.

Do we want the helicopters rules to be a copy of the equivalent fixed wing rules? Whilst we operate in the same air and we all agree that there is a need for some common standards we also need helicopter-specific regulations in order to operate to a level playing field standard in civil aviation.

Poor helicopter accident statistics is often due to the lack of understanding of how helicopters operate. Pilots from all types of helicopter operations need to have more influence on the regulators. This is the main challenge of the pilot helicopter community today.