"Helicopter Association International @Work Series "
Stephen M. Dickson, Virtual Meeting
December 10, 2020
Helicopter Association International
Thanks Jim, for the introduction and the invitation. I’m always happy to talk when the topic is aircraft and safety.
That’s especially true when we’re talking about a sector that does so much good for society.
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 by being associated with HAI, it’s clear that you’re dedicated to doing what’s best for the industry.
My reason for being here—and it’s the reason I’ve been attending a lot of safety meetings lately—is to ask that we all work together—government, industry, and academia—to figure out how to raise the bar on helicopter safety.
There’s reason to be optimistic. December 1st marked the first time in almost 40 years that we’ve gone three consecutive months without a fatal accident, with respect to type-certified and restricted category rotorcraft. And it’s not because flight hours were down—it was quite the opposite.
I’d like to think the period of safe operation has to do with the efforts by organizations like HAI, the US Helicopter Safety Team, the FAA Safety Team, and others.
We all know the damage that accidents do, beyond those involved. Accidents prevent industries from realizing their full potential. We can take a lesson from the airline industry, where safety has reached an unprecedented level, and passengers have the luxury of pretty much taking safety for granted.
I can tell you as a former airline guy, that reaching that level of safety is not easy. It requires a lot of hard work in collaborating, 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.
The aviation industry, not just the airlines, is 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 those 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 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, certain 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.
What SMS leads to is good data, and good data drives good decisions.
Capitalizing on the success of the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing, or ASIAS, program with commercial air carriers and fixed-wing general aviation, the FAA is working with industry to expand ASIAS to include the rotorcraft community.
We’re working with industry, HAI, and other partners to push ASIAS to the forefront of helicopter safety. We’ve stood up an ASIAS Rotorcraft Issue Analysis Team, a key initial step for bringing the rotorcraft community into the fold.
ASIAS can take us to the next level of safety in rotorcraft. Its centralized database allows teams to dive into that data to be predictive of accidents and incidents and hazards and risks, while maintaining key protocols and data protections critical to the success of the program.
You can scan the data to identify potential hidden risks from flight operations that, if left unchecked, could lead to accidents. Ideally, you’ll share the findings with the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, so that they can develop mitigation strategies to reduce the risk of fatal accidents for everyone.
There are other important ways to share data and information as well.
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 beginning to test virtual workshops where participants 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.
Our latest stats are a great indicator, but it’s too soon to know if it’s a one-off or a lasting trend.
I want to believe it’s the latter, because no accident, and more so, no fatal accident, is acceptable. That’s why the FAA supports the U.S. Helicopter Safety team’s vision of reaching zero fatal accidents. With government and industry experts, some from the FAA, they’re taking a scientific approach and urging—not mandating—the adoption of safety proposals supported by 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 these types of events to recalibrate and recommit to helicopter safety, and tell your friends who couldn’t join in today. Now is the time. We have the critical mass to make real change.
When we make the rotorcraft industry as safe as it possibly can be, we save lives in the process, and we’ll make progress in our quest to achieve zero fatal accidents.
Thanks again for the invite, Jim, and now I’ll take your questions.