The helicopter EMS industry has been suffering through the worst accident rate in its history. In fact, according to the NTSB, 2008 was the deadliest year on record with 12 accidents and a total of 29 fatalities. As a result, the NTSB has held hearings earlier this year and issued recommendations to the FAA. In a list of additional recommendations issued by the agency this month was the use of autopilots and improved pilot training.
I have flown an EMS helicopter both with an autopilot and without and I believe it is an excellent workload-reducing tool. It can also enhance safety, as many helicopter pilots are reluctant to climb into the clouds. When faced with deteriorating or unexpected bad weather, many helicopter pilots will descend to avoid entering IMC. Understandably, this comes from a lack of experience and confidence at controlling a minimally equipped helicopter on instruments, trying to contact ATC, and setting up for an approach. Moreover, adding to the urge to descend is the fact that helicopter pilots know if they can recover back to visual conditions they can always land. However in many cases it is much safer to climb.
In a 2006 report the NTSB said HTAWS (Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems) might have helped pilots avoid terrain in 17 of the 55 accidents analyzed. However, when a pilot receives a terrain warning he or she needs to be comfortable climbing if necessary and an autopilot can be a big help.
The NTSB report also calls for improved pilot training. Training pilots to engage the autopilot, initiate a climb, contact ATC, and set up for an instrument approach will give them the confidence to use that option when appropriate. Autopilots, HTAWS, and other advanced technology tools for enhancing safety must be accompanied with the proper training to be truly effective. With the recent advances in computer technology, helicopter simulation has become realistic and less expensive.
I believe the NSTB has done a good job identifying some solutions that might truly help reduce the accident rate.