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Heli-Expo 2017: US helicopter safety continues to improve

27th February 2017 - 12:00 GMT | by Georgina Smith in London

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In a recent report, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) emphasised positive progress in the drive to ameliorate the safety record of US civil helicopter flights. The announcement comes in the lead-up to Heli-Expo 2017, where international accident information will be presented.

According to FAA data, the accident rate of helicopters in the US has fallen for the third consecutive year. The 106 incidents in 2016 amounted to 3.19 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, a 12% decrease from the previous year.

Although the 17 fatal accidents matched the sum from 2015, a three-year comparison shows the rate dropping from 1.02 to 0.51.

Michael Huerta, administrator at the FAA, attributes the improved results to a joint effort by the administration and the helicopter industry to prevent accidents through practical measures, including greater education about safe practices in the civil helicopter community.

'The FAA and the industry are also taking an active role in advancing safety through new technology, collaborative policy changes and proactive outreach,' Huerta said.

The report highlighted an example of the technology employed to promote safer helicopter flights: the Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast (ADS-B) system must be installed in US helicopters operating in busy airspace by 1 January 2020, according to an FAA mandate. The satellite-based system provides 3D positional data without the geographic drawbacks posed by radar.

In terms of policy, a non-required safety enhancing equipment policy was issued in 2013 to make the approval process for safety equipment more streamlined and less expensive for operators and manufacturers.

In addition to enabling easier safety upgrades for existing rotorcraft, the FAA is working with industry representatives to ensure that newly-manufactured helicopters contribute to accident prevention. Injuries, post-crash fires and serious damage from bird strikes are primary safety concerns, and some manufacturers and operators are now voluntarily installing equipment to avoid such incidents.

One 2014 FAA requirement dictates that certain commercial helicopter operators, including air ambulances, implement stricter flight rules and procedures, improve communications and include additional on-board safety equipment.

Additionally, the FAA is urging helicopter companies and pilots to create a 'culture of safety' by establishing safety training programmes for employees and encouraging reports of unsafe conditions.

The three-day International Rotorcraft Safety conference has been held by the FAA for the past two years. It focuses on topics such as fatigue, protective equipment and a culture of safety. The conference includes presentations and accounts of first-person experiences, and is reliant on industry support.

Helicopter industry cooperation with the FAA is facilitated through groups such as the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) and US Helicopter Safety Team.

Further accident data from 2016 will be released at Heli-Expo 2017, with the IHST hosting partners from 50 countries, including Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, India, Mexico, Russia and the UK. Industry strengths and weaknesses will be discussed and future actions to improve safety will be highlighted.

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