"The Right Direction"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Denver, Colorado
June 8, 2010

Rotor and Wing


Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning, and thank you, Randy [Jones]. It’s not often that I get to make this kind of observation, but I feel like Mike Ditka back when he was coaching the Bears. After a game they won by a bunch of touchdowns, something like 56-3, he was going through a laundry list of what went wrong. As the story goes, one of his players whispered, “Didn’t we win?

My message to you today is similar to Ditka’s, in spirit, anyway:  One, the safety record for rotorcraft is absolutely headed in the right direction. And two, that’s absolutely not good enough. We need to keep going in the right direction.

When it comes to safety, phrases like “headed in the right direction” are nice to hear, but this is an industry that is built on the expectation of perfection. But being realistic:  Our accidents make the front page. We’re expected to reach the destination, and we’re expected to reach it safely. There’s no middle ground. In my book, “close enough” is never close enough. I think we’d all agree that the flying public feels that way too.

The helicopter industry has a good safety story to tell. There’s a knee-jerk tendency to focus on headlines and we’ve had our share of those. But despite the handful of highly visible accidents. Over the past five years, the number of fatal helicopter accidents has decreased by 22 percent compared to the preceding five years. Even better, the fatal accident rate has decreased by more than 40 percent.

But it’s clear to me that in this business, snapshots aren’t enough. The total number of fatal accidents is around 22-25 per year, we want and expect the accident rate to continue to improve — and zero would be a wonderful goal.

I find this particularly remarkable given the challenging range of missions you’re asked to fly and the challenging environments you’re asked to fly them in. Whenever you’re watching one of those reality shows about extraordinary jobs, there’s typically a segment on someone who needs a helicopter. The guys who handle the high-power lines over a ravine. The people — including some who work for the FAA — who do maintenance work on mountaintops. And as far as I’m concerned, the people who ferry back and forth to the rigs are in that class as well.

Personally, I’ve been mostly fixed wing all my life, but I think that in order to understand the issues in helicopter safety, people have to first understand that we use helicopters in situations where no other vehicle can do the job. You provide high speed transportation of the injured or sick from anywhere. There are applications like construction, wildlife and seismic work sight-seeing, and urban transportation. In each of those venues, people choose to fly helicopters because no other vehicle, no plane, train, automobile, can get the job done the way it needs to get done.

But your ability to go virtually anywhere also means that there is little infrastructure to support the operation.

In my time as an airline pilot, I flew into airports that were well established, well maintained and well equipped. That’s what this system is known for. I flew on airways that were checked and maintained. That’s a life that many of you would gladly adopt. When you fly to a clearing to drop off a biologist, or land on a road intersection to pick up an injured motorist, or reload your hopper between swaths at a farmer’s clearing you are likely the first person to ever land there. As a matter of course, you encounter a lack of weather information, lack of terrain and traffic information, and a lack of air traffic services, particularly in remote areas.

There are a smorgasbord of industries in which you fly, each with different operating environments and different challenges. Air Tours & Part 91 Sightseeing; EMS; Search & Rescue; Off-Shore Energy; Electronic News Gathering; Surveillance; Urban Air Taxi; Heavy Lift; Fire Fighting, Agricultural & Other Applications; and even the person who just wants to fly around.

The simple fact is that on average helicopter operations are dominated by more challenging missions and environments than any other category.

Many of these missions require low-level, VFR flight, flight that’s complicated by challenging environments. And low-level flight does not always offer an envelope of altitude and speed to reach a safe landing area if something goes wrong. You encounter more obstacles and more traffic at these low levels which makes flying and landing all the more challenging.

I think that the helicopter community deserves real credit for pushing the safety needle as far as you have. This industry has been very active in the International Helicopter Safety Team, which is doing for helicopters what CAST or the Commercial Aviation Safety Team did for the airlines. Because of their work, we’ve been able to find common threads to the accidents. By improving pilot decision-making training and better access to helicopter simulators, by adopting safety management practices and improving maintenance practices, we know we can improve the vertical flight safety record. These are insights coming to us from the International Helicopter Safety Team. The team brings together our safety partners from the European Union, Brazil, Canada, India, the Middle East, Japan and Australia. They’re looking to identify and implement ways to reduce the helicopter accident rate by 80 percent by 2016. That’s a daunting number, a big challenge, but we set a similar goal in 1997 for the commercial fatal accident rate and government and industry worked together to achieve great improvements. I, for one, am confident we’ll get there under the team’s leadership.

Improving your safety often starts with making use of the tools put in place by others. If you haven’t already checked out the toolkits at www.IHST.org, you’re missing a terrific resource that comes free of charge.

You’ll find information on how to design, establish and maintain effective SMS, risk-management, flight data monitoring, and training programs. To give credit where it is due, all of this came from you.

In addition to the practices and procedures I’ve just mentioned, the FAA and the industry both deserve some credit for getting ADS-B into the field, particularly in Alaska through Capstone and in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is a success story for ADS-B. The ADS-B system reached initial operating capability at Houston Center last December for operations in the Gulf. Over the first month of operations there were 209 ADS-B IFR flights on 12 equipped aircraft in the Gulf of Mexico. Right now, we’re seeing hard benefits from ADS-B being implemented in the Gulf. For example, equipped helicopters are saving about 96 pounds of fuel per ADS-B IFR flight. Based on 12 equipped aircraft, we’re seeing about 20,000 pounds of fuel saved every 30 days. The FAA has also seen an approximate operational time savings of 10 percent in IFR operations. Any one of those numbers is a very good day. If you’re hoping to take full advantage of everything that NextGen has to offer, you must equip. For example, you’ll be getting better situationalawareness, onboard collision avoidance and cockpit weather. If you equip, you’ll have a lot more information available to you.

On another front, I’m pleased with our regulatory efforts, particularly in the air tour industry and in helicopter EMS. The fatal accident rate among air tour operators in Hawaii is down by more than half since the air tour rule went into effect. Even a cursory review of accidents before and after that rule has to conclude that it’s been a success.

Despite all this, we still face some challenges. HEMS operations suffered a spike in fatal accidents in 2008. Since then, we have made progress but the highly visible nature of some of the accidents in 2008 means that the HEMS industry continues to be under scrutiny.

The good news here is that we now have a better understanding of these risks and that they are manageable. If you’re not adopting and using a safety management system, you are putting yourself outside the circle where the real benefits of safety data can come. We need those data points, and they can only come from you. For example, VFR at night. Most of the time these operations happen safely , even though night VFR is more demanding, especially at low altitudes and in otherwise challenging environments. But we need to keep this in mind:  the fatal accident rate increases during VFR at night operations when compared to those that take place in day VFR conditions. About three out of four fatal HEMS accidents take place at night. Night vision goggles will help but it will not address everything. Flying in weather or in instrument conditions, even in a properly equipped aircraft with a properly rated pilot, increases the risk.

The real frustration that we face comes from accidents involving VFR in IMC and VFR in night IMC. VFR in IMC accounts for many of the fatal accidents, 18 percent of all fatal helicopter accidents. Despite the common allusion to “inadvertent flight into IMC,” a review of many of those accidents suggests that the weather was rarely a surprise. Issues related to continued airworthiness account for 16 percent of fatal helicopter accidents.

These numbers are just a reminder that we must remain vigilant and gather enough data to get ahead of these accidents. Another area:  professionalism. We need for the experienced operators in the room to come along side the less-well established. Particularly so in this field, there’s much to be learned at the hands of an experienced professional. We need that information to be passed along. The night operations that I discussed a moment ago are particularly unforgiving. Those are the kind of lessons that don’t have to be learned firsthand.

Another element of professionalism is being able to judge the circumstances around a mission and to make the right call when it’s just too dangerous to fly. We need leaders in this industry who understand how human factors play into an operation. I know this is an industry full of dedicated men and women who want to complete the mission no matter the weather or the conditions — they want to make the rescue or transport that injured patient to the emergency room. In those tense moments we need professionals who can survey the situation and give good counsel about whether an operation should proceed or whether the aircraft needs to stay on the ground.

I issued a call to action almost a year ago for the airlines to step up their professionalism standards and their mentoring programs so young pilots could learn to do the job the right way. I’d like to do the same thing here today. And the burden for this doesn’t just rest with those who have hours up into four digits. I have the full expectation that the newer pilots in this room will seek out the advice and counsel of their colleagues. I can’t say it any more plainly. If you wait to learn safety lessons when you’re at the controls, the odds are that you’re going to learn hard lessons that you could have learned much more easily. But with all of that said, I think that this conference is an example that the will is there to keep our numbers heading in the right direction, and that is quite literally no accident. The operators here have shown consistently that you are willing to move to the next level of safety. And in safety, “good enough” really never is good enough. Greatness is the target, and I’m confident we’ll get there. Thank you.

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