Posted 6 years 108 days ago ago by Randy Mains
It certainly wasn’t my intention to be on drugs when I addressed FAA regulators at the “Meet the FAA Regulators” session at HAI Heli-Expo 2014. Two hours prior to that talk, I literally couldn’t walk. My back suddenly went out causing excruciating lower back pain, something that occurs every three years or so due to years of competitive tennis and decades in the cockpit. Still, I needed to tell the regulators that they missed a real opportunity to draft meaningful new rules to stop the unacceptable HEMS accident rate. Throwing a mix of over-the-counter painkillers down my throat, I gingerly made my way to the convention center.
I already knew the answers to any questions I might ask because I’d exhaustively researched the subject for the last two books I’d written on HEMS safety. But I wasn’t there to ask questions. Instead I was there to speak on behalf of over 700 crewmembers that had been involved in HEMS crashes … and specifically to speak for the 322 crewmembers who’d perished since I became a HEMS pilot back in January 1979. Their voices had been silenced.
No one in the audience knew who I was. I’d been out of America for 30 years, flying as a pilot and flight examiner in a two-crew helicopter environment while sharing the cockpit with airline transport pilots from 20 countries. Through these decades of adventure, I’d witnessed a much, much safer way to operate while flying. So when I took the microphone (after explaining that I was on drugs and the reason why) I gave them a little personal background. It was important they knew I had skin in the game.
I told them I was one of six early pioneers at Hermann Hospital in Houston trying to prove the HEMS concept in America. In 1982 I’d been awarded the first Golden Hour Award for my efforts. I mentioned I’d written three books on HEMS safety, the first in 1985 as a bellwether to warn that more HEMS crews would die if attitudes, rules, and procedures didn’t change.
“You missed a great opportunity to draft meaningful rules that would actually save lives,” I said. “While the industry waited anxiously these last five years for you to draft the final rules, following recommendations from the taskforce called by the NTSB after 2008 became the most deadly year on record, 41 more HEMS deaths occurred.”
By “meaningful rules,” I was referring to a recommendation made by the NTSB to the FAA that could have—by their own admission—prevented half those HEMS accidents. In a September 24, 2009, Safety Letter written by the then head of the FAA, Randy Babbitt, and endorsed by the then head of the NTSB, Deborah Hersman, under “Dual-Pilot/Autopilot Use,” Babbitt wrote:
“A review of the NTSB Aviation Accident Database revealed that during the 8-year period from 2000–2008, 123 HEMS accidents occurred, killing 104 people and seriously injuring 42 more. Pilot actions or omissions, in some capacity, were attributed as the probable cause in 60 of the 123 accidents. Most of these 60 accidents might have been prevented had a second pilot and/or an autopilot been present.”
I then said, “The fact that the FAA doesn’t have to abide by safety recommendations proposed by the NTSB, because you can choose not to enact rules that adversely affect air commerce, is evidence that our system is broken.”
Still, my statements didn’t uncover the full story. Flight safety in our industry is often discretionary. Let me explain.
The NTSB does research and makes recommendations to the FAA. Then the FAA proposes rules and presents them to the operators asking: What do you think? In the dual-pilot/autopilot proposed rule the NTSB recommended, the operators came back with: The added expense could force smaller operators out of business.
So, when presented with the NTSB’s research determining that the industry could have possibly prevented at least half the accidents, (meaning half those who died would still be alive today), the operators elected not to pass a rule mandating autopilots, thus placing a dollar value on a human life.
Imagine Congress in the early 1970s proposing their new seatbelt law to the auto manufacturers asking, “What do you think?” Then the auto manufacturers coming back with, “We don’t think it’s a good law because it would cost us too much money.” So Congress scraps it and more people die.
To be fair, many operators like Air Evac Life Team, Air Methods, and others have since decided to voluntarily equip their fleet with autopilots. That’s something the FAA likes to see.
I am not alone in my personal frustration with the FAA. Others much higher than me have also voiced concerns. Former chairman of the NTSB, Jim Hall, wrote an article entitled, “What Will it Take for Feds to Give EMS Copters Better Safety Regs?” Here’s a penetrating quote: “It is unclear to me why the FAA continually puts off taking significant steps to improve the safety of EMS helicopters. Surely, if commercial airliners were to crash at the rate that EMS helicopters do, something would be done.”
Then in an October 2008 Washington Post article Hall wrote, “The FAA needs to ask itself whether this ‘unique’ situation (HEMS) justifies a fatal accident rate that is 6,000 times that of commercial airliners.”
NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt sounded equally bewildered in his January 7, 2016, article “More Needs to be Done to Improve Helicopter EMS Safety.” In it he wrote:
“The FAA is to be applauded for implementing a broad-reaching set of regulations to improve HEMS. However, as evidenced by continued crashes, more needs to be done. NTSB crash investigations have demonstrated the safety benefits of scenario-based simulator or FTD training, use of NVIS, and a second pilot or an autopilot. Despite the FAA’s rule not including such requirements, (by not following the NTSB recommendations) the industry can voluntarily incorporate these life-saving measures. After all, an industry that is designed to save lives should not be claiming lives.”
My thoughts exactly.
About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a
CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long
career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM
instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at