Recent Steps Taken to Reduce Helicopter Accidents

By March 12, 2012Aviation Accidents

Helicopter accidents occur more frequently than most type of aviation accident. Flying a helicopter, whether for private, commercial or military purposes, has its own unique challenges, including the fact that helicopters tend to fly close to the ground and in congested areas that offer a range of obstacles, both man-made and natural.

Most helicopter accidents are caused by one of three factors:

  • Pilot error
  • Mechanical malfunction
  • Electrical malfunction

In 2005, the International Helicopter Safety Team was formed in response to a growing rate of worldwide helicopter crashes. Created by helicopter manufacturers and operators, and various government aviation regulators, the organization announced in 2006 a concentrated effort to reduce helicopter accidents 80 percent by 2016.

Air Ambulance, Medical Evacuation Helicopter Operations are at Heightened Risk

Of particular concern is the operation of air ambulances – helicopters used for emergency medical services. The helicopter air ambulance industry grew by 54 percent between 2003 and 2008, and the National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 400,000 patients and transplant organs are flown by helicopter each year.

Medical evacuation helicopters can face especially daunting conditions, since they’re responding to an emergency situation and frequently using unplanned routes. The need for fast action, often in dangerous landing and take-off areas, heightens the risk for air ambulance crews, patients and passengers.

According to a 2009 study by Ira Blumen, program director of the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, air ambulance crew member is one of the nation’s most dangerous professions, with a higher on-the-job death rate than steelworkers, loggers, and deep sea fishermen.

New Rules to Help Avoid Helicopter Crashes

In October 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed new rules for all commercial helicopter operators, but several were targeted specifically to the air ambulance industry, including:

  • Additional on-board safety equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles
  • More formalized flight rules and dispatching procedures
  • Improved communications and pilot training
  • Installation of flight date recording devices

The period for public comment on the new rules ended in January 2011, and the final set of rules are expected to be released in July of this year.