"Together, We Go Higher"
Stephen M. Dickson, Virtual Event
October 27, 2020
Rotorcraft Safety Conference
Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us today for the FAA’s Rotorcraft Safety Conference. I’d like to thank Lance Gant, Director of the FAA’s Compliance and Airworthiness division, and his entire team for continuing this safety conversation in the virtual environment until we can meet again in person.
I’d also like to thank Steve, Lance, and Wayne, for opening the conference with an excellent discussion about the FAA’s certification and flight standards priorities for rotorcraft.
Certification and Flight Standards are two of the many components that support the FAA’s broad safety mandate, which is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.
Rotorcraft are essential to the efficiency and productivity of that aerospace system.
We saw this in the spring without a doubt when COVID-19 caused a large percentage of our air transportation network to go dormant— but not rotorcraft. Helicopter operations were back to normal levels by mid-May.
Whether for, police, EMS, utilities, corporate shuttles, or literally hundreds of other purposes—rotorcraft are essential. No other flying machine can do the same thing. Everyone here knows that, and you want what’s best for the industry—that’s why you’re here.
My reason for being here, and the reason the FAA is having this conference, is to both recognize this unique industry and to put our heads together—government, industry and academia—to figure out how to move the ball forward on safety.
To realize the full potential of any sector of aviation, safety has to be its top priority. It’s no secret that the airline industry is the gold standard when it comes to unprecedented safety levels.
One of the key elements to the success story is the collaboration, partnering, and sharing of information and data between everyone who has a role in the system—the FAA, manufacturers, pilots, mechanics, controllers, flight attendants, and many others. I also include survivors in this list, as they have experienced what can happen when we don’t get it right.
We are increasingly using safety management systems, or SMS, to formalize and streamline this flow of information and data within an organization. As you know, SMS is a required element of Part 121 airline operations, and we’re progressively deploying the practices throughout the aerospace industry.
Part and parcel of SMS are the practices of Flight Data Monitoring and Safety Reporting. These are proactive, data-driven approaches to oversight that prioritize safety above all else. To be successful, these programs rely on a Just Culture that places great value on front-line employees raising and reporting safety concerns.
With a Just Culture, 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.
We are encouraging operators to adopt and use Flight Data Monitoring as feedback into their training programs, and ideally, make it part of an SMS process.
When we integrate safety management principles into the design and manufacturing processes, we will ensure a systems approach to safety by coordinating risk management processes and feedback loops between design, manufacturing, operation, and maintenance.
You can see that we’re firm believers in the power of SMS. In fact, right now, the FAA is targeting spring 2022 to publish a proposed SMS rule that will apply to Air Taxis, Air Tour Operators, Repair Stations, and PMA parts providers. We’re also working on an SMS for airports.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for the rules. By voluntarily implementing an SMS, an operator can identify hazards and head off incidents or accidents by putting safety risk management processes in place. The key is being able to identify and understand the risks in your operation, and that’s what an SMS provides.
For the rotorcraft sector specifically, there are a variety of outlets for sharing information to make all of us safer.
We have “Go Local” Workshops, where we take the FAA’s Safety Team, or FAAST Team, and industry safety experts directly to local pilots to discuss certain accident scenarios as a starting point to educate pilots on decision-making.
We had to suspend these in-person meetings temporarily due to COVID-19, but the good news is that we’re close to launching virtual workshops where participants will vote in real time on how pilots should react to challenges during a precarious helicopter flight.
A great way to share your experiences and learn about the best practices of others is to participate in our newly instituted helicopter InfoShare program. InfoShare, if you’re not aware, is a program we started in partnership with the airline industry, but its success is leading other sectors, including business aviation, and now rotorcraft, to adopt the same model.
Another avenue for sharing best practices is through the Helicopter Safety Advisory Council, which has developed recommended practices for oil and gas industry rotary-wing operators that are easily adaptable to other helicopter sectors.
I know it’s cliché to say “we need to think outside of the box,” but for the rotorcraft sector, that’s what I really need all of us to do right now. For 15 years now, the helicopter fatal accident rate has remained roughly the same. As I said earlier, we’ve got to move the ball toward the safety goal line—zero fatal accidents.
No accident, and more so, no fatal accident, is acceptable. That’s why we support the U.S. Helicopter Safety team, which has made zero fatal accidents its primary mission. This government and industry group, that includes some of our FAA safety professionals, is taking a scientific approach, urging adoption of safety proposals based on data.
We’re also strongly advocating for operators to make voluntary, safety upgrades where beneficial, including helicopter occupant protection features.
Why is that so important? Because blunt force trauma injuries are linked to more than 90 percent of helicopter fatalities.
For new helicopter designs, certification rules require potentially lifesaving protection through crash resistant seats and surrounding structures. But the thousands of helicopters in our legacy fleet aren’t required to have these features. Why not consider retrofitting these upgrades?
Other retrofit safety options we’d like to see, include crash resistant fuel systems. As required in our 2018 Reauthorization, the FAA is requiring new production helicopters built after April 5, 2020, to have these systems out of the box. But we would really like to see these same systems available and operators voluntarily installing them on our legacy helicopter fleet.
I think you can see that we already have many options available to help improve the safety record of the rotorcraft industry, and that we’re always looking for new ideas.
That’s where you come in. Please use this conference to recalibrate and recommit to helicopter safety, and tell your friends who couldn’t join us. Now is the time. We have the critical mass to make real change.
Safety has to be the top priority, our North Star.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen in on the next session where you’ll hear from three people who will remind us why safety is so important. Like many others who have lost family and loved ones in aviation accidents, Dave & Amanda Repsher and Karen Mahany have become catalysts for change in the industry.
When you hear their stories, they will drive home why all of our efforts to increase safety are truly necessary.
When we make the aviation industry as safe as it possibly can be, we save lives in the process, and we make progress, perhaps slowly but steadily and surely, in our quest to achieve zero fatal accidents.
Thank you, and have an excellent conference.