The helicopter accident rate resumed its desired downward trend last year. Significant reasons could be continuous communication, stricter flight rules, and proliferation of newer technology flight simulators and training devices. Rick Adams reports.
Credit improved awareness. Credit repeated communication. Credit ever-advancing aircraft technology. Credit new simulation technology and training techniques. Credit regulation.
There’s plenty of credit to be shared, as the helicopter accident rate and fatality rate dropped in 2014 after a surprising uptick in 2012 and 2013.
Since formation of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) in 2006, the safety statistics had been making steady progress, though slower than desired against the volunteer group’s target of an 80% reduction from 2001-2005 baseline levels. In 2013, however, in the United States, total rotary-wing accidents bumped up to 146 (compared to 185 accidents in 2005) and fatal accidents numbered 30 (compared to 24 in 2005). In 2012, there were 154 accidents, 23 of them fatal.
But according to preliminary data for 2014, the trendline resumed a downward glidepath; total accidents decreased by 11% to 130 and fatal accidents decreased to 21, a 30% drop from 2013. (Statistics outside the US were not available as this issue went to press.)
Overall, the rate of 3.64 accidents per 100,000 civil helicopter flight hours in the US represents a 54% reduction compared to the 2001-05 baseline. Fatal accidents showed a 42% decline from baseline.
The IHST and its counterparts on the United States Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) and European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST) have maintained a steady drumbeat of guides, bulletins, analysis, fact sheets, videos, and other communications to keep the safety message in the forefront.
Jim Viola, FAA manager, General Aviation and Commercial Division, and USHST Government Co-Chair, said, “We’re glad to see that the numbers are continuing to go down. More helicopter operators, pilots, instructors, and mechanics across the country are learning how to better manage risk and are infusing their culture with effective safety habits. Safety messages from the USHST and the IHST are getting through at the grassroots level.”
A year ago, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a rule that had been proposed in 2010, which requires stricter flying procedures in bad weather to “provide a greater margin of safety by reducing the probability of collisions with terrain, obstacles, or other aircraft.” Enhanced procedures for night flying, inclement weather, and landing in remote locations kicked in last spring. And within the next two years helicopter air ambulances must use the latest on-board terrain and obstacle-avoidance technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles. By 2018, they must also be equipped with flight data monitoring (FDM) systems.
The FAA also required that pilots be tested to handle flat-light, whiteout, and brownout conditions “and demonstrate competency in recovery from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions” (IMC). Plus they advocated use of terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), radar altimeter, and night vision goggle (NVG) technologies.
Last year, as well, the UK and Norwegian civil aviation authorities reported on their landmark study of offshore helicopter accidents for the previous two decades. The CAP 1145 safety review made several controversial recommendations, including prohibiting flights in the most severe sea conditions and only allowing passengers to be seated next to push-out windows.
Research is currently underway at Falck Safety Services Canada in Newfoundland, Canada, taking a scientific look at the force required to open a push-out window. Regulations say exits should not require ‘excessive force’ to open, but the amount of force is not defined, according to project director, Dr. Michael Taber, Falck senior research scientist. “What’s excessive might be different for you and me and for someone else.”
Simulator Spurt The UK/Norwegian review also identified “training and ongoing skills of aircrew as another key factor in the prevention of accidents … loss of control associated with the sophistication and automation of modern aircraft and helicopters is an issue requiring attention. Harmonisation of training and procedures for pilots in these areas is recommended as well as improvements on how the two pilots work together to monitor the flight. There will also be a review of the instrument flying training that pilots receive.”
“A large percentage of helicopter accidents occur during training,” noted Jim Takats, president and CEO of Textron Aviation’s TRU Simulation + Training company. Takats has frequently participated in industry task forces such as the Royal Aeronautical Society working group which produced the new Manual of Criteria for the Qualification of FSTDs – Document 9625, Volume 2, published by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). “There’s really an underutilization of training devices in helicopter pilot training.”
Utilization is accelerating as TRU, FlightSafety International, CAE, and others are rapidly deploying new helicopter simulators with capabilities many say are more advanced than the Level D flight simulation and training devices (FSTDs) used to train fixed-wing commercial airline pilots.
FlightSafety has announced plans to increase its deployed civil helicopter simulators by 40%. This after boosting rotary-wing devices from only a handful five years ago, to more than 20 today. Level D simulators to be added next year at a new Learning Center in Denver, Colorado will provide training for pilots of Airbus models AS350 B2, EC130T2, and EC135. Training for the Sikorsky S-92A and S-76C+/C++ helicopters are to be offered in Singapore this year. An S-76D sim is planned for Southeast Asia as well. Other new device types will represent the Bell 407GX and Bell 412 EP-Fast Fin.
CAE, which had been running hexapod-to-hexapod with FlightSafety in fielding civil helicopters, appears to have slowed their pace a bit. Together with Líder Aviação, the largest helicopter operator in Brazil, CAE began offering S-92 training in São Paulo, complementing the S-76 program there. The Canadian company and Eurocopter will install an EC225 CAE 3000 Series Level D flight and mission simulator later this year in Norway, targeting offshore and search-and-rescue operators.
“Customers in the offshore oil and gas business are being very cautious” because of the steep decline in global oil prices, acknowledged Camille Mariamo, who leads CAE’s business aviation, civil helicopter, and maintenance training business unit. Despite the macroeconomics, Mariamo said, “We haven’t seen any impact on training.”
TRU’s Takats is looking to join what has been a relatively exclusive club of high-end civil helicopter providers. “In the business and helicopter aviation market, we feel there is significant opportunity in that market and a place for a third competitor to be successful. It has been pretty much a duopoly, and a lot of that duopoly has been based on previous agreements with OEMs.”
TRU is leveraging its own OEM relationship, currently building simulators for Textron’s Bell Helicopter 429 and the new fly-by-wire Relentless 525. The 525 contract was originally awarded to Opinicus, the company Takats founded a quarter-century ago, prior to its acquisition last year by Textron.
The Bell 525 simulator design incorporates a couple of interesting twists for the visual and motion systems. “The Relentless was a state-of-the-art helicopter with a clean sheet design, and we took the same approach with the simulator,” Takats told CAT. “Helicopter training is different from the fixed-wing world’s concept of zero flight time” because of some of the technology limitations and types of training, he explained. “We’re not just flying from Point A to Point B. We’re hovering. We have to fly into cities with helipads. Fly to accident scenes where there are a lot of obstructions.”
“Obviously in the helicopter, the visual system is a very important aspect. Scene content and the resolution of the display and looking at things like the rotorwash when you’re coming over water really provides a lot of valuable cues to the crew members to judge the wind and how their approach needs to be. Conditions can be life-threatening,” Takats said. “We worked really closely with Bell pilots to define what fidelity and resolution they’re looking for.”
The Relentless simulator will have 240-degree horizontal by 80-degree vertical field-of-view visual system which effectively encompasses the entire 238-degree FOV of the aircraft cockpit. Ten 4K projectors will provide a combined 40 mexapixels of pixel density for the direct-view dome display.
Instead of a vibration platform, the motion cueing system will feature a second but lower-profile hexapod with a shorter stroke, kind of a mini six degree-of-freedom system. “Instead of just getting vibrations, we can get translational cues and a lot of the awareness cues important to the flight crews – not only the rotor vibration but some of flight dynamics as well,” Takats said.
Known as the Odyssey H simulator design, Takats said, “We believe it is the most technologically advanced simulator out there that really addresses a lot of the needs of the helicopter community.”
Higher-Fidelity ‘Low-End’ Trainers It’s not just the highest-end simulators which are contributing to pilot handling skills and situation awareness. Flight training devices (FTDs) and Advanced Aircraft Training Devices (AATDs) have taken tremendous strides in capability.
Frasca International, whose product line scales from AATDs and FTDs to Level D FSTDs, last month introduced a new device which president John Frasca labels “a mix between a Level 7 and a Level D. It features a new-design TruCue system with a “substantial range of motion all six axes. Most certainly vibration and all the acceleration cues, albeit in limited amounts.”
Frasca also rolled out a much higher-fidelity training device for the Robinson R44 training helicopter. “For over 10 years we’ve had a lower-fidelity device,” Frasca said. “What we were hearing from several customers was they felt the fidelity needed to be higher. They wanted the cockpit representation and the aerodynamics to be more precise. It’s qualified as either an AATD or Level 5 but it’s capable of Level 6 or 7. When they fly it they’re going to feel that the aerodynamics are much more like the aircraft. The ability to hover is more realistic.”
“The throttle governor, which is a very important part of these helicopters, is fully simulated; when they’re flying, the throttle is moving to maintain the rotor RPM.” Frasca explained, “In some of the older devices, we had a governor simulator but it was all just done in software so that cue was not available to the pilot. Now we simulate it with a control loading channel that goes to the throttle.”
The supposed “lower-end” FTD has five channels of control loading – two for the cyclic, one for the pedals, one for the collective, and one for the throttle. “One of our differentiators is we’re not just getting a pilot in there to say this feels right. We actually flight-tested the airplane with digital recorders, gave the data to the engineers. Data is a very critical part of Level 5 qualifications.”
“Lower-cost training can still be used to keep a pilot sharp. They can be used to teach fine motor skills, hovering, not to over-control. These devices are really good at that,” noted Elite Simulation Systems Business Development director Wayne Keyes. “AATDs can be deployed to many helicopter emergency medical bases, and it may not be necessary to send pilots away once a year to train on a Level D simulator.”
Elite has received FAA approval for their first Model TH22 device, representing the Robinson R22 type of piston-powered helicopter. Launch customer Colorado Heli-Ops plans to use the dual-control, open-cockpit, three-screen visual device for instrument and visual flight rules training.
Redbird Simulation is building its prototype VTO helicopter simulation, which may be certified at an AATD level but features a fully enclosed cockpit and floor-to-ceiling LCD screen visual system. The first configuration represents a Bell 407 and they have orders for R22 and R44 versions. “The whole purpose of this device is to try to take that first six, eight, ten hours teaching ground reference maneuvers, hovering, autorotation. It’s to take that time away from that very, very expensive helicopter asset, and be able to develop a level of proficiency with rotor-wing students,” said Redbird CEO Todd Willinger.
The VTO also incorporates “a radically different” all-electric motion platform system design. “Motion is much more important in a helicopter sim than it is in a fixed wing,” Willinger believes. “By the time you see it, it’s too late. You’ve really got to feel it and that’s why we’ve spent so much time and financial resources trying to get this motion platform correct.”