Recent Helicopter Crashes Underscore Need For Greater Use of Flight Data Recorders
The Sept. 4 crash of the United States Coast Guard Eurocopter HH-65 "Dauphin" helicopter and the loss of four service members comes on the heels of three other high-profile crashes and points to the ongoing need for increased efforts in helicopter safety, says a prominent aviation law attorney.
Devices such as cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders -- two electronic tools which could help pinpoint the causes of fatal helicopter crashes -- are the exception rather than the norm in most helicopters and light aircraft, says Raleigh, N.C. lawyer James T. Crouse, a former U.S. Army helicopter test pilot.
"These devices are available and should be mandated," Crouse says. "Similar devices have been utilized in the automotive industry for years, and are now affordable for use in smaller aircraft in aviation such as helicopters."
Crouse is the senior partner in the Crouse Law Firm, which concentrates in aviation accident law at the local, national and international level, representing the families of persons injured in civilian and military aviation accidents, including helicopter crashes.
Crouse has long been an advocate of greater safety devices in helicopters and has written extensively about the causes of helicopter accidents.
The Coast Guard crash in Hawaii may have been caused by a problem with the aircraft's main rotor system, Crouse says, perhaps as a result of interference by a cable that could have snapped during a simulated rescue operation involving the aircraft's winch.
"Fortunately, the aircraft had a flight data recorder which, along with other portions of the aircraft, has been recovered," Crouse says. Four survivors have also been able to give information to investigators, according to Crouse.
The need for greater helicopter safety is underscored by the Coast Guard crash and several other recent incidents:
An Aug 8. crash of a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter in Northern California's Trinity Alps took the lives of seven firefighters and two others. "The crash is still under investigation, but given the fact that it was a heavily loaded helicopter at a fairly high density altitude, the aircraft was within the danger zone of helicopter operations where any problem with lift can cause the aircraft to have difficulty maintaining altitude," Crouse says.
On Aug. 29, a Robinson helicopter crashed in southwestern Missouri. Very little information has been released on that accident. "This is a popular helicopter due to its relatively low cost, and its simple design makes it popular with new helicopter pilots," Crouse says. "The fact that the helicopter was seen flying normally and then nose-dived points to a failure of a component."
On Aug. 31, an Air Evac medical helicopter crashed near Burney, Indiana, killing the pilot, flight nurse and paramedic. Reportedly, the Bell Model 206 Long Ranger helicopter's main rotor system was found 200 yards from the main crash site, possibly indicating a catastrophic failure of the main rotor system, says Crouse. The crash marked the fifth time in recent years that a medical helicopter operated by Air Evac EMS has crashed, and the second fatal accident in Indiana for the West Plains, Missouri company.
Crouse says that major steps are being taken in helicopter safety through the work of such organizations as the International Helicopter Safety Team, formed by industry and government groups to study the causes of accidents and to make recommendations on their prevention.
Those efforts are commendable, but Crouse notes that data recorders are still not required on helicopters--or other "light" aircraft. This is a limitation for the accident investigators, Crouse says. "The investigators still rely upon an analysis of the wreckage--which they have been doing for decades. We could get closer to the cause if we had this electronic information. The capability is there, why not use it?"
Crouse added: "Whether the cause of each of these crashes can be determined remains to be seen. But the families, operators and manufacturers need to know what happened. Without this knowledge, there is a strong risk that crashes will continue to occur due to the same, undetermined, causes."
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