Helicopters are complex, sophisticated machines which, unlike airplanes (fixed-wing aircraft), have hundreds of moving parts, all of which must function properly individually and collectively for the helicopter to operate safely. But the most important “moving parts” of a helicopter are the pilot and those in the pilot’s organization that establish operational procedures to insure that a safe aircraft is in turn operated safely.
It is the helicopter’s unique ability to operate close to the ground which makes it a useful and an indispensable mode of travel. But operation close to the ground places the helicopter, its crew and its passengers, in a hazardous and sometimes deadly environment. Flight at lower altitudes brings the hazards of wires, power poles, trees, and other weather events, smoke and the ground itself—hills and mountains. This is where operational error causes the majority of both fatal and non-fatal helicopter accidents as shown in a 2016 presentation by the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST)—see below.
Although all three categories of causes of helicopter accidents (operational, mechanical and electrical/hydraulic) involve some degree of human error, operational error is the one where the human error is most direct and apparent. This human error can occur in the organizational culture, flight planning, actual conduct of the flight, in training or in maintenance. The subcategories of operational error are myriad, but a few subcategories are identifiable:
- Failure to operate the aircraft in accordance with the aircraft’s operational limitations
- Operating the aircraft in unsafe environmental conditions
- Failing to properly plan the flight taking into account human factors and situations
- Improper maintenance
- Improper training of flight and maintenance personnel
- Faulty manuals, training guides, checklists and operational procedures
- Faulty oversight, auditing and review procedures
The IHST was established following the International Helicopter Safety Symposium (IHSS) held in September 2005 in Montreal, Canada. Since its inception, the IHST has led a combined government and industry effort to address the unacceptably high long-term helicopter accident rates by studying the causes of helicopter accidents and establishing multi-faceted corrective measure.
A presentation in 2016 by the IHST in Louisville, Kentucky by the IHST Regional Partners Panel showed some startling findings. First, a graph entitled “Commercial Air Travel by Immediate Cause” showed Violations (33%) and Errors (38%) were the greatest factors of the “Immediate Cause” (over System Failure (22%) and “Other” (7%).
A further breakdown “Violations” showed the greatest percentages were violations of Minimum Safe Altitude (55%) and Weather Minima (30%). “Errors” was broken down into Inadequate Pilot Judgment (34.7%), Flight Below Minimum Safe Altitude (21%), Misassessment of Weather (18.2%), and Poor Circumspection (8.5%).
SHOCKINGLY, THE REPORT STATED: EVERY SECOND ACCIDENT OCCURRED IN VFR FLIGHT IN INSTRUMENT METEOROLOGICAL CONDITIONS!
If tragedies are to be prevented, these operational aspects of accident causation must be embraced and acted upon. The lives of passengers and crews depend upon it.
James T. Crouse has been a pilot for thirty-two years, during which time he has performed as a U.S. Army aircraft maintenance officer, maintenance test pilot, and research and development test pilot. Mr. Crouse has litigation experience involving major air carriers, general aviation, helicopter, and military crashes, as well as non-aviation mass disaster litigation.