Holding the line means to not yield to pressure in a difficult situation. Practicing safety in helicopter operations could be a high-pressure situation and difficult for many. However, safety applications are holding the line for helicopter safety in civil, law enforcement and OEMs. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also weighs in on safety for good measure. According to Statista, the annual number of worldwide helicopter fatalities has declined since 2006. There were nearly 1,000 fatalities that year and in 2010; it has been tracked to under 200 per year since 2020.
Civil helicopter operations and training
Chris Sharpe, Founder of Black Wolf Helicopters in Guatemala, a civil helicopter operation, pointedly said that the reason for safety management systems is ‘not dying’. He is a master aircrewman, trainer and medic with 16,056 flight hours over 34 years. The company offers training in special operations and has worked on TV, movies and government contracts. Sharpe chuckled when he said safety is ‘common sense’, but its safety systems are compiled from the best global safety models for helicopter operations. He teaches volunteer firefighters, ground rescue crews, embassies, and others in helicopter missions, stating that safety must be incorporated into everything they do.
From day one of a training program, Sharpe includes safety in such a way so that ‘people don’t know they are learning it’. He added that if people knew they were taking a safety class during just one training day, then ‘they would all call in sick’. But he noted the critical nature of safety training begins with an exploratory process with the customers. It assesses the customer operation to determine whether they have a safety manual or standard operating procedures, starting with a risk assessment from ‘pre-takeoff to how the crews are prepped so that safety becomes a part of normal flight operations’.
The training incorporates safety in the following operations:
- Aircrew survival
- Combat survival
- Underwater egress
- Helicopter marshaling
- Aircraft crash rescue
- Search dog safety
- Hospital helipad safety training
- First responder safety training
- Advanced medical training.
Black Wolf Helicopters has additional challenges, even with the safety protocols they teach in that region. The main challenge is during monsoon season when the ‘weather closes in on the mountain range’. They can only fly in the morning but are able to fly about 250 trips to teach and execute search and rescue (SAR), medevac, and firefighting with a Bambi Bucket. Although there are more helicopters in Guatemala than anywhere else in Central America, Sharpe said that there are problems with many operators flying cheaply and not following safety protocols. He said it isn’t reported if they crash, and just ‘buy another helicopter’. He also noted that for mountain adventures, ‘you better have a credit card’ if an accident requires helicopter evacuation, noting that local companies don’t accept insurance. Sharpe explained: “Because there is no state-responsive service, we fly over jungles and volcanos. Everyone pays for a search. People regard their safety more importantly [when they have to pay for it].”
There are problems with many operators flying cheaply and not following safety protocols
Sharpe concluded that helicopter safety operations should be second nature, as they are with operating a car. His staff are ex-military and must have a minimum of 2,500 hours before being interviewed. “I can tell a civilian pilot when I get into the helicopter,” he said, leaving the statement up for interpretation.
Municipality law enforcement safety with helicopter search and rescue
The Chief of Police in Spokane Valley, Washington, and Vice President of the US-based Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA), David Ellis has similarly adopted safety as the core of their law enforcement operations. Ellis started the Spokane Regional Support Unit in 2005, which brought helicopter SAR to the region. The department now has four helicopters for the greater metropolitan area of almost 600,000 residents, and they also support northern Idaho and western Montana. They operate two Bell OH-58s and two Bell Super Hueys.
The municipality maintains 10 civilian pilots, 10 commissioned tactical flight officers, and six helicopter rescue medics. It provides ‘valuable search and rescue, fugitive searching, fire suppression, surveillance, homeland security critical infrastructure checks, natural disaster damage assessment, and patrol services to the Inland Northwest’, according to its website. The aircraft were obtained through military surplus programs.
Ellis said the company follows safety protocols through that organization and uses ‘our internal system, with a flight risk assessment form, and tracking of all hazard reports’. As a part of SMS, they do a safety survey and set SMS goals annually. “We also have dedicated a safety officer to the program,” he added.
Surrounding helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), he stated: “We are not an EMS service, but when we have a hoist, we can transfer to a local hospital. We have six rescue medics as a part of the program.”
The Safety Day sponsored by the APSA is a good safety reminder for everyone on staff
Regarding incidents, they have about 200 flights per year for SAR and some with medical assistance. As for safety protocol documentation, Ellis said that they have a ‘living, breathing SMS policy that is assessed at least once a year’. But he said that safety is a daily state of mind, and they have a Safety Day sponsored by the APSA, which is dedicated to crew resource management where safety management systems are reviewed, and ‘it is a good safety reminder for everyone on staff’.
Built-in safety with OEMs
Airbus Helicopters, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), said safety is a priority ‘from our customers to our shop floor’. Teri Short, Vice President of Flight Operations and Engineering at Airbus Helicopters, manages the company’s engineering, certification and aviation safety departments, and flight test, production and training operations in Texas and Mississippi. She said safety is alive and well with their engineering and design processes: “Airbus Helicopters is working on the full implementation of the FAA Safety Management System Voluntary Program, expected to be completed in the next 18 months. The manufacturing process contains safety and quality protocols with quality checks throughout.”
The manufacturing process contains safety and quality protocols with quality checks throughout
Airbus Helicopters cited that helicopter flight is a safe method of travel for air rescue operations. Short said: “You can fly in and out of tighter spaces and land closer to your destination, critical to air medical and rescue operations. New terrain, traffic, and weather systems are being installed along with advanced avionics systems that greatly increase pilot and crew situational awareness and reduce workload, significantly enhancing safety.”
Customers, including pilots and emergency medical crews, can leverage aircraft features by starting with pilot and training classes offered by Airbus Helicopters. “The crews should be knowledgeable of the aircraft they are operating in and on and fully understand the safety protocols for that specific aircraft model. Our aircraft are designed and manufactured with multiple levels of redundancy so that in the unlikely event of a failure, the aircraft can be recovered and safely land,” said Short.
She added that ease of operation is a ‘key factor in the design of Airbus aircraft’.
Airbus communicated that it fosters a ‘speak up culture’ that ‘globally empowers employees to identify any safety or quality concerns to ensure our products meet the highest levels of safety and quality’.
It touts the safety of the aircraft as being the ‘highest quality with an eye on safety and human factors to offer the best product on the market’, according to Short.
Regarding regulatory bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and EASA, she shared that they follow regulations for both and for those of other airworthiness agencies, explaining: “Aircraft sold and operated in the USA are certified to the FAA regulations while aircraft operated in Europe are certified to EASA regulations as the state of design. Aircraft operating in other countries are certified to meet those regulations.” But they noted that regulations can and do change with technical advances. Airbus works ‘hand-in-hand’ with the FAA to ‘deliver critical technology to our HEMS and rescue operators’. However, she noted that the pandemic was challenging but said: “We remain dedicated to working through the challenges that arose in the industry during that time.”
Modern safety regulations
EASA has safety at its core but doesn’t require a specific SMS tool or system. John Franklin, Head of Safety Promotion at EASA, said that any SMS for an aircraft or helicopter operator must comply with the EASA rules on this topic laid down in ORO.GEN.200 of the Rules for Air Operations (EU Regulation No 965/2012).
EASA determines four main aspects of safety management:
- A clear policy supported by management buy-in. This should outline where safety responsibilities lie and how the operator intends to achieve its safety goals
- Safety risk management, a process to identify and mitigate hazards that the operator faces. A key part of this involves a positive safety culture that embraces organizational learning and an organizational reporting system that enables staff at all levels to report occurrences and hazards
- Safety assurance, which considers the organization’s compliance with EASA rules and the effectiveness of safety controls in mitigating any identified hazards
- Safety promotion to continually raise awareness on important safety issues and mitigations.
Pilots should work with their own organizations to discuss and improve safety, as well as through national associations and the European Helicopter Association (EHA)
For those following safety regulations in Europe, EASA suggests that operators contact their local national aviation authority, the responsible authority in EASA member states. Pilots should work with their own organizations to discuss and improve safety, as well as through national associations and the European Helicopter Association (EHA).
Like Sharpe’s perspective on safety to try to ‘not die’, EASA has a similar theory: “At a basic level, this means that operators need to think about the ‘stuff that might kill you (STMKY)’ and whether they are controlling the risks of the STMKY, and also if those controls are working.”
For EASA, it comes down to having a safety mindset and preparation. Following rules and regulations is essential as well. Franklin concluded: “Finally, safety procedures should continually improve with a positive approach to organizational learning.”
Safety management systems for helicopter operations, whether civil, military, law enforcement, HEMS, or SAR require that individual organizations follow the rules set forth by the OEM and the regulatory bodies. From there, it is about group thinking and commitment to safety protocols and enforcement in everything the organization or business undertakes.