Interview: Bruce Webb, Airbus Helicopters
AirMed&Rescue spoke to Bruce Webb, Director of Aviation Education and Community Outreach for Airbus Helicopters Inc., who believes that the future of the industry depends upon its ability to work together towards a common safety goal
For how long did you hold your position as Chief Pilot at Airbus Helicopters, and what was the most exciting part of that role?
I was Chief Pilot for 16 years from July 2000 to July 2016. For me, the most exciting and gratifying part of being the Chief Pilot was the opportunity to help shape the complexion of our department. We experienced tremendous growth within Flight Operations during those years. We were able to successfully hire and retain many fantastic pilots. Each one continues to build upon our legacy through their strength of character, proactive approach to safety, and fundamental aviation expertise.
Why did you decide to leave the Chief Pilot position at Airbus and move into an education and outreach position?
I feel that change is necessary in almost every aspect of life. My participation in the expansion of our department and influence upon our culture was complete. And while the decision was not easy, I am convinced that my choice to step down was the correct decision for Bruce Webb – and for Airbus Helicopters Inc!
Are you involved in the Vertical Aviation Safety Team initiative? How important is industry collaboration to you? Can progress be made without it?
Airbus is convinced that the future of our industry depends upon our ability to work together towards a common safety goal. Airbus is indeed proud to be participating in the Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST) and I, personally, look forward to the important work we’ll be doing. Working groups like this one and others that combine industry voices are a key part of Airbus Helicopters’ Aviation Safety Ambition and Roadmap, and many of the activities I’m involved in – including these groups, my safety outreach and my videos – all aim to support this roadmap and help ensure the right tools are available for all our customers, no matter their operations or the size of their fleet. Actually, did you know that most helicopter operators across the world have a fleet of fewer than five aircraft? And while safety is very important to all of us, many small operators simply lack the resources to proactively focus upon safety initiatives. VAST is one initiative designed to address this reality by becoming a central repository of information, ideas, and community voice.
Automation in the cockpit is a key part of enhancing the safety of helicopter operations, but are we in danger of information overload for pilots? Where does the balance lie in avionics enhancing safety without it being detrimental to the pilot’s mental capacity to concentrate on all the information they are being given?
With each passing year, helicopters are becoming more technologically advanced and capable. Manufacturers are aware that information overload is a potential issue that must be considered as we develop new aircraft and systems. This was a key factor when Airbus Helicopters developed Helionix avionics, which helps reduce the pilot workload significantly in the way the system operates and in the multi-function display screens. I believe that great effort has been taken to ensure technological advancements do not come with an unreasonable consumption of a pilot’s cognitive resources, and I’m certainly proud of the development path and certification approach that Airbus has taken in this area.
However, as aviation professionals, we must accept our individual responsibilities regarding safety; we must prepare ourselves to operate these advanced aircraft. The knowledge and competency required to take advantage of these new technologies requires pilots and technicians to receive the right training. This is why
Initial and recurrent training is very important for all associated personnel
Bird strikes are an ever-present danger to helicopter pilots; what kind of education is on offer to pilots to help them minimize the risk of bird-strike, and what are aircraft manufacturers doing to minimize the damage this can cause to aircraft?
Bird strikes are certainly a threat that everyone in the industry takes seriously. Regulators, educators and manufacturers have all developed training materials to raise awareness about the dangers associated with bird activity. As we learn more about bird behaviour, we are able to recommend flightpath adjustments that can minimize exposure to bird strikes. Bird-detecting radar and aircraft lighting are also being examined as new technologies to help pilots avoid birds, and for birds to avoid aircraft. We have also seen advancements in windscreen materials and shapes that are more resilient to impact and also structural designs, which may mitigate the potential damage should a strike occur on other parts of the aircraft.
Changing the culture and the conversation around helicopter safety is a key issue, especially in the US. Financial pressures have historically meant that pilots accepted flights where they perhaps shouldn’t have done, and accidents have occurred. Do you think that the culture of safety is changing for the better, generally?
I believe the mere fact that we are discussing ‘safety culture’ is an indication that we are moving in the right direction! Culture does not change overnight. Incrementally we are making improvements, but we must continually work to maintain this positive momentum, and I believe it’s up to the entire industry not only to say that safety is a priority, but also to act on it. This is achieved in many different ways and is something that requires commitments from the pilots themselves, the operators, the manufacturers, regulators, insurance companies, etc. We are all in this together when it comes to ensuring that we promote safety in every aspect of our business and our industry. We know that an acceptable/effective safety culture is difficult to measure, so my suggestion is that we should simply work to make tomorrow safer than today.
The issue of crash survivability and crash-resistant fuel tank installations onboard new and old aircraft is also one that continues to affect the helicopter industry. Do you think that enough is being done by regulators in this regard to ensure the helicopters currently being flown are as safe as they can possibly be for the occupants?
Regulators, manufacturers and operators are all concerned with safety. As I’ve said before, it takes everyone in the industry working towards the same commitment to safety for it to be successful. Of course, the challenge is to completely understand where an aircraft needs improvement, then to conceive, design and build a component and/or system to positively affect this need in a manner that’s acceptable to regulators, operators, and end-users, without adding any negative effects to other aspects of the aircraft (increasing cost to a point that wouldn’t be feasible for an operator, adding too much weight that would alter mission profiles, etc).
Crash Resistant Fuel Systems (CRFS) has been one topic representative of this challenge, and something that Airbus has been working extremely hard on to implement the right changes in the right manner.
Energy attenuating seats/structures and improved interior materials are other main areas of focus with regard to
Inadvertent Entry Into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IIMC) and Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) are not stopping, despite efforts to minimize their occurrence. What more can the industry do to enhance the safety of helicopter operations during inclement weather or in a degraded visual environment?
This unfortunate reality remains a concern for everyone in the helicopter industry. Airbus has chosen a very proactive approach when it comes to IIMC – at the Airbus Helicopters North America training facility in Texas, a dedicated IIMC course has been offered for more than five years, and substantial outreach is done with our operators and externally to raise awareness on this topic and encourage more focus on something that can be prevented.
Airbus also is proud to have participated in the education video and training course entitled ‘56 Seconds to Live’ from Helicopter Association International (HAI). A lot of the content I put out in my Aviation Education outreach is about IIMC and CFIT, and a lot of Airbus’s outreach focuses on practical methods to reduce the chance of encountering an IIMC situation at the onset.
For example, using something as simple as the PAVE checklist (Pilot/Aircraft/ Environment/External pressure) is an excellent place to begin:
- First, evaluate yourself (pilot). How are you feeling? Have you had sufficient rest? When did you last eat a nutritious meal?
- What about the aircraft? How is it equipped – VFR, IFR? Does the aircraft have any inoperative equipment and, if so, how may it impact your flight/mission? Are you familiar with its various systems?
- What is the environment like: day or night? Unfamiliar and hostile, or well-known and hospitable? The actual weather: VMC, marginal VMC, IMC, hard IMC, cold, hot, high DA, high winds?
- And finally, external pressure(s). Are you in a time crunch? Do you feel as though you’ll be letting people down if you don’t fly?
Obviously, the list for each one of these can be very long, but devising a logical method to systematically consider all factors would be a huge step in the right direction. A Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) is an established way to begin.
We must break the accident chain far before reaching the point of needing to ‘Land and Live’.
Land and live must be the absolute last resort – not our back-up plan
Accident statistics clearly indicate that the opportunity to avoid IIMC/UIMC/CFIT accidents exists far before the pilot straps into the aircraft. This is where we must improve. We must make our decision-making process more robust. We must slow down, make informed decisions – and simultaneously keep the five hazardous attitudes, especially impulsivity (do something quickly), invulnerability (it won’t happen to me), and machismo (I can do it) under control!
If you had to choose one item (piece of equipment) onboard a helicopter that you think has made the biggest difference to safety of operations over the past few years, what would it be?
It’s a bit difficult to isolate one item. Just as accidents do not typically result from one causal factor, it’s difficult to point to one single piece of equipment that has been most beneficial as well.
Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System (H-TAWS) has provided better situational awareness to pilots in respect to terrain and obstacles. The Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) system has improved engine performance and reliability. Night Vision Goggles (NVG) have improved our ability to see at night. And finally, Automatic Flight Control Systems (AFCS) for small VFR aircraft are becoming increasingly common. Each one of these items has the potential to enhance aviation safety. However, no single piece of technology will replace solid judgment. Each piece of equipment is simply another tool available to the pilot. We must understand the benefits and limitations of each piece of technology available to us. Once we understand the technology, we must apply our knowledge, skill, and judgement to use the item/device/system correctly.