"Helicopter Safety – Time to Think Outside the Box "
Stephen M. Dickson, Anaheim, CA
January 28, 2020
Helicopter Association International – Heli-Expo
Remarks As Delivered
Good morning, everyone.
By now, everyone is aware of the tragedy that happened Sunday morning, only 50 miles northwest of this convention center.
I speak for all of us at the FAA when I say that we are saddened by this accident and the loss of so many lives, and our hearts go out to the family and friends of those onboard.
It is much too early to speak intelligently about why this may have happened, but suffice it to say that the NTSB, FAA and others are already hard at work to discover the causes. Despite what the investigators ultimately determine, we in this room know that all too often, helicopter accidents and GA accidents, in general, turn out in hindsight to have been preventable.
I left Washington on Friday prepared to deliver a safety message here and to lead the charge for action on helicopter safety. The events of Sunday morning make that mission all the more urgent. If not now, then when. If not us, then who?
Though we meet here with heavy hearts, it is good to be among such an esteemed group of aviation professionals here today with a shared focus on aviation safety.
Of course, I recognize that the helicopter community deals with safety and operational threats that are much different from my experiences in all my years in fixed-wing fighter aircraft and commercial aviation. So I felt it was particularly important to come here in person today to see for myself the depth and breadth of your industry and to hear about your challenges and concerns.
Aside from a few pleasure rides in air tour helicopters, I do not have much personal experience in your operational world, but it’s clear to me from a professional perspective that rotary wing aviation is an essential element of our transportation system, particularly when it comes to helping people. How many of our citizens owe their lives to rescue helicopters, or the operators that spring into action on a moment’s notice to carry critically ill patients to the hospital?
These aircraft are extremely versatile with unique capabilities and handle a wide variety of operations 24/7/365.
We remember now that it is only a little more than 80 years since Igor Sikorsky hovered the world’s first practical helicopter in Stratford, Connecticut. Yet today vertical lift has become a mainstay in the American aviation landscape, and there’s much more to come when you think about drones and urban air mobility.
While helicopters represent a relatively small portion of our general aviation fleet—about 6%— their impact is significant and even disproportionate compared to other forms of aviation—particularly when you count the benefits to society from medivac, search and rescue, police, infrastructure inspection and air taxi operations, to name just a few.
Actually, one look in the exhibit hall or in the news, makes it clear that the notion of a rotorcraft as I just described earlier—one rotor spinning above your head—is sorely out of date. From relatively inexpensive quadcopters the size of a basketball…to faster, quieter and more autonomous traditional helicopters and tiltrotors… to automobile-sized electric flying taxis that are quickly jumping from the drawing boards to the test area, today’s rotary wing aviation is quickly moving “outside the box” that Sikorsky first flew in.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems, known as UAS or drones, are now flying in the airspace that used to be largely the domain of helicopters. I don’t have to tell you the growth has been exponential.
We’ve been registering drones for a little more than four years, and we’ve already got more than 1.5 million on the books, with more than 400,000 listed for commercial use, and we’ve approved two Part 135 operators.
We have also approved 27 part 137 UAS operators—which you may know as crop dusters. Consider for reference, we’ve been registering aircraft for more than 90 years, and we’ve got just shy of 300,000 in the manned aircraft registry.
We are learning a great deal about the innovative ways that drones can help society and be operated in the NAS through our Integration Pilot Program. Our strategy of “operations first,” is allowing us to use the existing regulatory regime, which helps us ensure innovation can drive forward.
UPS and FedEx are actively participating in trials to speed up the delivery of small packages and working on type certificates for small autonomous drones. Innovators up in Alaska are looking to do the same with much larger vehicles.
Said another way, over the last 3 years, we’ve shifted our strategy from writing rules to getting machines in the air and flying—and taking lessons learned from the operations approval process to write better rules.
Our goal in the United States, in contrast to many areas of the world, is to integrate, rather than segregate, UAS operations into the NAS. At the moment I don’t have to tell you that this strategy is nowhere more important than to the helicopter community, as in many respects the need for integration is felt more acutely in the airspace where you operate than it is in the airspace where we typically find fixed-wing operations.
Knowing the location of drones is a key requirement for accomplishing the vision. That’s why the FAA recently issued a long-awaited notice of proposed rulemaking to require drone operators to provide remote identification for their vehicles.
We’ve received over 6000 comments so far and welcome the public input as it will help us craft a rule that meets the safety and security needs now and for the future.
Flying taxis are on the horizon and manufacturers are getting ready for testing. According to my UAS team, we are currently engaged with the builders of more than 15 electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft projects. At CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, we saw Uber and the Hyundai Motor Company unveil a full-scale aircraft concept in their partnership to create Uber Air Taxis, and shortly after, Toyota announced a hefty investment in flying taxi developer Joby Aviation.
Also in January, we saw North America’s first public demonstration of an autonomous two-seat flying taxi—an eHang EH216 taking flight in Raleigh, albeit with no passengers.
Of course, the FAA has to ensure that these new entrants are safe before they can take part in regular National Airspace System operations. We’re using a crawl, walk, run approach as we mature the vehicle technologies and air traffic management procedures to do this, and at this point, I’ll note that we’re still in the crawling phase for both, but we are making rapid progress.
A key question we get from new entrants is “how safe is ‘safe’”? Will the fatal accident risk we accept for rotorcraft operations today be acceptable for Uber riders tomorrow? Probably not.
We—the FAA and industry—have some important work to do in the name of rotary wing safety right now. Sunday’s crash comes one month to the day after the loss of seven people on a Safari Helicopters air tour on Kauai on December 26th.
These are tragic stories, particularly when families on an adventure or a quick ride to an event become the unwitting victims of accidents that, far too often, are preventable. In the aftermath of any crash, the reputation of the entire helicopter community is questioned, and the public may question whether the benefits are worth the risks.
We know from the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team’s latest numbers that the helicopter sector has a fatal accident rate of approximately 0.63 per 100,000 hours, based on a five-year moving average. That’s well below the overall general aviation rate of approximately 0.94, but it’s not enough.
Just like the broader GA sector, pilot error is the predominant factor in fatal accidents. In fact, even when there is a mechanical component failure that leads to a crash, we often find that the component failed, because the helicopter was being operated outside its limits or the maintenance instructions were not being followed.
A key challenge we all face is that place where we have the largest number of paying passengers experiencing fatalities in our airspace—air tour operations. I’m here to tell you this needs to change. We need to find ways to move that part of the industry toward the level of safety achieved by the commercial airline sector.
The good news is that with certain targeted interventions, the fatal accident rate has continued to decline—and we’ll discuss some of those initiatives later. The bad news—or it should be bad news to all of us—is that the rate is still too high, and making interventions more difficult is that many of the pilots and operators in the personal/private helicopter sector are difficult to reach.
While an accident rate of zero is the ultimate goal, our Part 121 commercial airline industry today is the closest we have come to that. In the past 10 years, there have been more than 90 million commercial flights in our NAS, carrying more than 7 billion passengers, with two fatalities.
That’s a safety record that’s hard to get your mind around in any human endeavor, much less one where you’re carrying people in highly advanced aerospace vehicles at more than 500 mph and miles above the earth.
Granted, helicopters fly lower and slower, but there’s no need for your safety goals to be lower, and frankly, for the flying taxi model to succeed, riders will likely expect an airline-like assurance of a safe flight. And why shouldn’t they?
As I said earlier, the long-term GA fatal accident rate, including helicopters, is declining but we can’t be satisfied. It’s our responsibility to ask ourselves the hard questions and determine what more we can do to enhance Helicopter safety.
Consider that the helicopter offshore industry has a fatal accident rate that is a factor of two below the combined rate for the sector. How are they doing it and what are their lessons learned?
That’s one of the reasons why I came here to Heli-Expo, to take stock of your industry, hear your concerns, and to get up to speed on the unique aspects of helicopter operations.
When it comes to rotorcraft, I’m a neophyte, and I’m all ears.
I do have plenty of experience and perspective to offer from the world of fixed-wing commercial aviation safety, as you probably know: twenty-seven years at Delta, the last 12 of which I spent as Senior VP of flight operations. I was responsible for the safety and operational performance of the company’s global flight operations of more than a million flights a year on six continents, as well as pilot training, crew resources, crew scheduling and regulatory compliance.
The commercial airline industry’s stellar safety record in the NAS over the past decade is a testament to the evolution and adoption of risk-based decision-making processes by government and industry.
This is happening in part through initiatives like the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST, and effective tools like Safety Management Systems, voluntary safety reporting programs, flight data monitoring and sharing through data initiatives like ASIAS.
But we always, always, always need to stay humble and vigilant. We all know in our business you’re only as good as your last takeoff and your last landing, and the number of takeoffs and landings need to equal each other.
There’s too much at stake to wait until the next accident occurs to figure out how to operate more safely. We have to identify accident and incident precursors so we can take actions to prevent them—and shared data allows us to do that.
Some of these processes obviously are applicable to the GA and helicopter communities, and some may not be. As you probably know, we’ve migrated the data-driven analysis model over to GA through the GA Joint Steering Committee and through other government-industry initiatives like the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team.
Business aviation and portions of the flight training community are also well on their way to implementing data gathering, analyzing and sharing to help them and the broader industry figure out how it is performing.
In 2013, the FAA started with two members of the business aviation community participating in the ASIAS program. Seven years later, we have 100.
That’s impressive, and it’s a success story for our industry. But we don’t rest on our laurels, because there are thousands of flight departments, single-pilot, and owner-flown operators, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing, out there who could, at minimum, find real value in Flight Data Monitoring and pilot reports, even if it’s just to monitor their own operations.
Using Flight Data Monitoring as feedback into your training program is a good example of a safety management system process. Safety management also relies on having a “Just Culture” in place so that pilots and aviation workers feel empowered to report honest mistakes and issues without fear of retribution. That atmosphere gives workers the freedom to report and provide their management with data they can use to get a heads-up on what might be an accident in the making.
Without that information, all bets are off. One year ago, tomorrow, a pilot and two air crewmembers were killed when their Bell 407, on a Part 135 flight, slammed into terrain near Zaleski, Ohio, while en route to a hospital for a patient pickup.
While the NTSB has not yet issued its conclusions, we know from the operational and human factors factual report, which was released in September, that there were issues with safety culture in that flight department.
A healthy safety culture requires some basic elements:
The organization must encourage employees to voluntarily report issues without the threat of retribution. It has to have data analysis capability to make sense of the flight data and safety reports. It needs a method of tracking and trending issues and the effects of corrective actions, and it must provide feedback to let employees know what became of their reports.
The factual material from this accident provides some good examples of what an unhealthy safety culture can look like. For example, numerous pilots and medical crew told investigators about incidents where they received, or they witnessed, pilots being reprimanded or challenged for declining flights. One pilot said he was not aware of a way to report safety concerns “without getting himself in trouble.”
The NTSB noted that “while personnel were aware of the ways to report concerns, a number of them were uncomfortable voicing concerns due to fear of reprimand by management and the lack of previous management action on voiced safety concerns.”
You can imagine how the inability to speak out might lead a pilot to take a mission when others would not. In fact, the accident flight had been rejected by two other providers. Making matters worse, the operator had stated in written materials to hospitals that they would take flights when other operators turned them down due to weather.
This accident is, unfortunately, not an isolated case of a safety culture vacuum when it comes to the helicopter and overall GA sector.
We, at the FAA, in concert with you—industry—are working to improve helicopter safety on multiple fronts—including information sharing, education about risk management and safety management systems, safety-boosting technology, and enhanced training, among others—and we’re always open to new ideas about how we can be more effective.
Adopting best practices is certainly a path to reducing risks. A great way to share your experiences and learn about the best practices of others is to participate in our new helicopter InfoShare program, which had its first meeting in October. I’m told a key topic of discussion at the meeting was the importance of SMS, and how it can truly help helicopter operators reduce their risks. Another avenue for sharing best practices for oil and gas industry rotary-wing operators is through the Helicopter Safety Advisory Council, which has developed recommended practices that are easily adaptable to other helicopter sectors.
And have you heard of the USHST’s “Safety Workshop in a Box”? This is an education program where the FAA’s Safety Team, or FAAST Team, along with industry safety experts, take their safety message directly to helicopter pilots.
It’s a deep dive on one specific accident that educates pilots on decision-making. We tested the idea in Phoenix last year and, this year, will be taking it on the road to 10 cities and adding a second accident scenario.
The FAA is also working to bolster training related to loss-of-control awareness, pilot competency, and technical support.
In the technology area, we’re doing research with enhanced vision technologies to help pilots see in reduced visibilities and stability augmentation systems to make it easier to fly the machine when times are tough. We’re also looking into algorithms that will make simulators accurate through a certain range outside the typical flight envelope, so that pilots can have more realistic training opportunities.
We’re also working with industry to develop new helicopter Airman Certification Standards to replace the current practical test standards. The new standards will include risk management elements in all areas of operation and tasks to help develop better-prepared and safer helicopter pilots.
These efforts are a good start, but as I said earlier, we’re always in search of thinking that is “outside the box” on how we can address the accident rate.
We are serious about getting on top of the safety challenges we face in the helicopter air tour industry.
And frankly as many of you may know there is a lot of energy in Congress right now as it relates to both safety and noise concerns associated with helicopter air tours; if there isn't meaningful action on both of these fronts very soon, I suspect the path forward will be dictated to this industry.
Our safety experts have begun developing an action plan to address the issues, and we look forward to sharing the details with our partners and stakeholders in the near future. Upon sharing this plan, we hope to receive your valuable input and support.
Before I close, I want to flag another issue we, and I’m sure many of the operators in this room, are focused on — helicopter noise. There is growing concern in many parts of this country about the impact of helicopter noise on communities.
This is part of a larger challenge that has been developing across the country with respect to aviation noise— both around airports and often associated with air tours. And there are ongoing collaborative efforts to address noise. For example, FAA is engaged with HAI’s Fly Neighborly Committee to promote community friendly flying and to educate operators on community engagement best practices.
However, without more engagement and action by the rotorwing sector, I suspect noise concerns will increasingly impact not just today’s operations but our ability to integrate new users— UAS and urban air mobility— into the NAS.
I would urge operators to be much more proactive in their engagement with communities on noise issues and try to find constructive approaches to manage these challenges.
Thanks again for your attention. I look forward to learning more about this fascinating side of our industry and personally getting involved in making vertical flight as safe as possible—as safe as the public expects it to be. I hope to see many of you in the near future as we explore new ways to improve general aviation and helicopter safety. Together, we can do it—we must do it!
I do want to encourage you to attend the “FAA: Meet the Regulators” session taking place this Thursday at 8:30–10:30 am, where you will get to meet several members of my senior leadership team. They plan to share information on rotorcraft safety initiatives and entertain your questions. Let’s keep the dialog going.
Thanks for inviting me; I very much look forward to continuing this dialogue and our work together.