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Improving Safety in Single-Engine Helicopter IFR Operations

It should not be a surprise to anyone reading this that the accident rate for civilian helicopters is slightly higher than for fixed-wing aircraft, according to the NTSB. The safety agency placed helicopter operations on its “Ten Most Wanted” list in 2014. The accident rate for all aircraft—including helicopters—is 7.28 crashes for every 100,000 hours of flight time. The accident rate for helicopters alone is 9.84 per 100,000 hours. The reasons for this are well documented. Helicopters are normally flying at lower altitudes than fixed-wing aircraft and in typically more demanding environments: emergency medical operations, power-line inspection, and search and rescue to name just a few. The advantages that helicopters enjoy over fixed-wing aircraft are the same things that tend to make them inherently more precarious.

helicopter ifr avionics systemsHowever, the good news is that the accident rate has declined over the past ten years thanks in part to the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), a collaborative effort started in 2005 by the American Helicopter Society (AHS) and the Helicopter Association International (HAI) with the ambitious goal of reducing the worldwide helicopter accident rate by 80 percent in 10 years. IHST has buy-in from the FAA, OEMs, operators, repair stations, regulatory agencies and accident investigators. By establishing a data-driven accident analysis program and recommending best practices for operators, its ultimate goal is to eliminate accidents all together.

The actual decline in accidents is closer to 50 percent—compared to the baseline measurement taken between 2001to 2005—but that still is a significant improvement.

Reducing Accidents Further with IFR

A relatively recent proposal put forth by several industry trade groups including HAI, AHS, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and Aircraft Electronics Association, specifically addresses the accident rate for single‐engine IFR helicopter operations under 14 CFR 27 of the FAA regulations. FAA 14 CFR 27.1309 defines the safety requirements for single-engine helicopters compared to multi-engine equipment: “The equipment, systems, and installations of a multi-engine rotorcraft must be designed to prevent hazards to the rotorcraft in the event of a probable malfunction or failure. The equipment, avionics systems, and installations of single-engine rotorcraft must be designed to minimize hazards to the rotorcraft in the event of a probable malfunction or failure.”

Most single-engine helicopters are not IFR equipped. The proposal, set forth in a white paper published in June, makes the generally accepted assumption that if more of these helicopters were equipped for IFR operations, their operational safety would be improved. Inadvertent flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IIMC) or Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) are the two main factors seen in most single-engine helicopter accidents. And not surprisingly, most of the helicopters cited in the NTSB accident reports were not IFR-certified. Of the few that are IFR-certified, most are using older avionics instead of current GPS-based technology that has been available for some time. And keep in mind that most EMS operators are flying single-engine equipment.

There is an excellent analogy here that proves the point of the white paper. The FAA Capstone program in Alaska, which was the genesis of ADS-B, showed a 38 percent reduction in the fatal accident rate when using more advanced GPS-based avionics systems and glass cockpits, as opposed to older steam-gauge instruments. The primary point of the industry proposal is that operators should equip to get the added safety benefit of IFR—an added safety enhancement when flying VFR turns into IMC. And in order to do this we need to revise the certification requirements for Part 27 operations to make them more economically viable for owners, operators and manufacturers.

Again, the Part 23 experience serves as a model. When Part 23 reduced the barriers to affordable glass cockpit technology following the FAA Capstone program, private and corporate operators quickly adopted the technology. No special mandates were required. The common Part 23 airplane is typically IFR equipped without mandates or incentives other than the convenience of flying IFR and the fact that IFR provides value: The additional cost of  equipment, the additional empty weight of the aircraft, the additional maintenance costs are offset not only by the additional safety, but the additional ability to fly and generate revenue.

Training is available because IFR aircraft are readily available. Part 61 and Part 135 initial and recurrent training then become commonly available and ideally performed on the same aircraft type. Easing the certification requirements for single-engine helicopter IFR operations will give a big boost to the industry in safety and efficiency.