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Helicopter Operations…True Measure of Helicopter Safety?

Posted 2 years 183 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

Every month I receive a Monthly Accident Briefing from the Federal Aviation Administration. I find the information compelling and relevant to my role as a helicopter educator. The data is very well packaged supported by pie charts, diagrams, and links to actual helicopter accident reports that occurred during the current reporting period.

During a conversation at Heliexpo in Atlanta, an acquaintance and I were discussing this report and how the accident data was calculated using flight hours. Essentially, the data provided looks at the number of helicopter accidents per every 100,000 hours flown. Although this is the same method used to calculate fixed-wing accident rates, does this measure accurately reflect the volume of helicopter operations that take place during a 100,000-flight hour period?

When I got back to the office, I reviewed our flight log for the past 12-months. Our total landings during this period were 1750+. On average, we conduct 7 landings for each hour of flight time; many of which are power-off landings. Our flight profile is advanced pilot training in a Bell 407, however most flight training helicopters would reflect similar data.

In Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18), a total of 125 US registered helicopter accidents occurred. This produced an accident rate of 3.74 per 100,000 flight hours. What would happen if we measure the number of helicopter operations (takeoffs/landings) during this period in lieu of flight hours?

Each day, helicopters conduct many more takeoffs and landings in a single flight hour than most fixed-wing aircraft over a multi-hour period. Additionally, the phase of flight where risk is most critical is landing. Helicopters land in many locations without the benefit of air traffic control, weather reporting, or even improved landing areas.

Over the years, this topic has been raised by many within the accident investigation and data collection groups. Those tasked with collecting and compiling the data into some type of meaningful information are not able to gain access to these numbers. Why?

I have engaged the FAA, NTSB, US Helicopter Safety Team, Insurance Underwriters, and many other groups that have an interest in the accuracy of accident data. In many cases, the data does not exist.

We as an industry need to get this data point captured. The ability to measure our industry safety accurately based upon actual helicopter operations conducted annually would change the narrative of helicopter safety as a whole.

My belief is the helicopter industry has the lowest accident rate by number of operations conducted than any other category or class of aircraft. We just need to prove it!

Do you believe the current method of calculating helicopter accident data accurately reflects helicopter industry safety? Let me know…

About Randy: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.