Chuck Weirauch reports from the recent Heli-Expo conference held in Orlando, Florida, USA.

Safety management systems (SMS) and the coming need for helicopter operators to implement them into their safety programs and training manuals, as well as into the company culture, were a major theme at the 2015 Heli-Expo conference held March 2-5 in Orlando. Both the Helicopter Association International (HAI)'s Safety and Training Committees held a number of conference sessions during the show that stressed the need to implement SMS.

That need is so that operators would not only able to meet possible FAA regulations that call for an SMS, but to increase the overall safety of their operations and greatly reduce incidents and accidents as well. It was pointed out that the FAA had released its revised Safety Management Systems (SMS) for Aviation Advisory Circular (AC 120-92B) in January 2015.

Among the 735 exhibitors that were on the show floor were training providers CAE, Elite Simulation Solutions, FlightSafety International (FSI), Merlin Simulation and X-Copter Helicopter Simulators. Frasca International and Bristow Academy teamed up at a joint exhibit to display Frasca's TruFlite R44 helicopter flight training device (FTD). More than 18,700 HAI members, industry representatives and exhibitors attended the four-day event. A total of 57 helicopters and other aircraft were displayed on the show floor.

As a part of the HAI Safety Committee's efforts to emphasize the importance of the use of helicopter simulators in training to improve operational safety, that organization had a separate exhibit area that featured two X-Copter simulators. HAI members and other attendees were encouraged to review and refresh their basic flight skills with the FTD during the show.

Safety Town Hall 

Of the several safety and training sessions conducted during Heli-Expo 2015, the opening day Safety Town Hall had the most attendees, including a team of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) inspectors. Tony Kern, a leading international human performance expert, chaired the event, which focused on what the helicopter industry considers to be the most significant safety problem areas and how they should be addressed.

During the Town Hall session, HAI Safety Committee member Terry Palmer, who manages the Helicopter Flight Training Center at Metro Aviation, said that training is the key to helping resolve safety issues. She feels that one of the biggest safety challenges for the industry is to obtain the resources for flight simulators and devices that are needed for adequate training, especially for the major issue of training pilots for new cockpit technologies.

Some of the other major safety problem areas and issues highlighted at the Town Hall session included distractions, complacency, and inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC), pressure, critical decision-making and professionalism. But having a just culture throughout helicopter operators' organizations as a critical safety element seemed to hit home with nearly all of those stating their concerns at the session.

According to Kern, the biggest safety challenge to the helicopter industry is changing the current cultural attitude towards safety in an industry that accepts minimum performance standards, and a low but significant accident rate. The industry needs to raise pilot performance standards as a whole, while individual pilots need to strive to continually improve their personal performance, to eliminate any of the causality factors of accidents.

Training as a Safety Culture Vaccination

In the key Heli-Expo training session, Bristol Academy general manager Nick Mayhew and Mike Phillips, manager for Helicopter Business Development for Frasca International, provided a different perspective on training as a safety culture "vaccination" which can help reduce accidents and improve overall operational safety. Mayhew is the Chair of the US Helicopter Safety Team Training Working Group, while Phillips has spoken as a safety and training advocate at several aviation industry events, including the Helicopter Training Conference (HATS) segment of Halldale Group's 2015 World Aviation Training Conference and Tradeshow (WATS).

Although the rate of helicopter accidents has been reduced significantly in the US, those in the industry do not think that we have the culture to reduce the accident rate to zero, Mayhew said. What is needed to help change that culture is a safety attitude, he said. So we need a safety vaccination, just like the vaccinations of children that in the US have eliminated certain diseases - and that vaccination is training. Ab initio training could be considered the initial "shot," while recurrent raining could be the "booster" shot.

Phillips pointed out that although more technology in the cockpit has provided pilots with such advantages as improved situational awareness, accident rates have still stayed the same in recent times. That rate won't improve until everyone in the industry is on board with a risk management plan to improve safety - namely a voluntary safety management system.

"The last thing we need to want to train to in terms of safety is a regulation, since regulations are a minimum set of standards - and that's not necessarily good training," Phillips summed up.

On Heli-Expo show day 2, the HAI Training Committee presented the "Get the Most Out of Your Training" session. This session was geared to providing HAI member pilots, mechanics and support personnel with an overview of how to do just that. George Santos, a Crew Resource Management Instructor for Loben Consult, informed his session attendees how human factors and behavioral principles can be employed to train effectively so that students will put lessons learned into operational practice. Sunshine McCarthy, director of Training for Baldwin Aviation, explained how an SMS can mature to help provide a continuously safe operation. The show also featured a company Safety Directors' Forum with senior FAA and NTSB senior managers, as well as a session on IIMC.

Other Show Topics 

Along with the extensive sessions on SMS, accident prevention and training, the HAI annual show featured an FAA panel on the agency's research into advanced flight vision systems; sessions on helicopter instrument proficiency; aviation human factors; aeronautical knowledge; fuel management and other operational topics. A number of new aircraft were unveiled at the show, including the new Airbus Helicopter H160 medium twin.