On January 16, 2014 the National Transportation Safety Board released its 2014 Most Wanted List, the top 10 advocacy and awareness priorities for the agency for the year. With the high accident rate in the helicopter industry, helicopter operations have been added to the list. According to the NTSB, between January 2003 and May 2013, 1,470 helicopter accidents have occurred, with 477 fatalities and 274 serious injuries.
The NTSB understands that helicopters are used for a range of operations, each of which presents unique challenges. For example, helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operators transport seriously ill patients and donor organs to emergency care facilities, often creating pressure to conduct these operations safely and quickly in various environmental conditions. These include flying in marginal weather, at night, and landing at unfamiliar areas. Air tour operators and airborne law enforcement units face similar issues.
These and other operational issues have led to an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents and the NTSB stated there is no simple solution for reducing helicopter accidents. However, they have recommended some safety improvements to mitigate risk. For instance, helicopter operators should develop and implement safety management systems that include sound risk management practices, particularly with regard to inspection and maintenance. Moreover, establishing best practices for both maintenance and flight personnel that include duty-time regulations that take into consideration factors like start time, workload, shift changes, circadian rhythms, adequate rest time, and other factors shown by recent research, scientific evidence, and current industry experience to affect crew alertness. Operators should also make sure that their pilots have access to training that includes scenarios such as inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions and autorotation. Also noted as invaluable when an accident occurs is a crash-resistant flight recorder system that will assist investigators, regulatory agencies, and operators in identifying what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.
Recent NTSB investigations of 3 accidents resulted in the issuance of 27 safety recommendations pertaining to issues that include risk management, pilot training, maintenance, and flight recorders. These include a June 2009 accident near Santa Fe, New Mexico, involving a helicopter on a search and rescue mission, an August 2011 HEMS accident near Mosby, Missouri and a December 2011 air tour accident near Las Vegas, Nevada.
During the last 10 years the NTSB has issued over 100 safety recommendations. If the high helicopter accident rate continues, the FAA could step in and enact regulatory changes that would force changes on the entire industry.