NTSB top 10

January 19, 2014 by Tim McAdams

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.


  • Avi Weiss

    While there may not be “simple” solutions, there are somewhat straightforward ones that could greatly reduce the risk and occurrence of accidents, but such solutions entail potential reductions in revenue for flights that fail to launch due to weather, flight visibility, crew readiness that fall below somewhat arbitrary levels that such solutions would stipulate.

    I think one aspect that drives the continued high accident rate for helicopters that doesn’t receive a lot of priority is the double-headed coin of “invincibility” / “I’ll look weak or incompetent if I don’t fly”. I think the AOPA course that reviews the New Mexico State Police SAR accident should be WEEKLY required viewing to refresh our memories (I’ve watched it about 4 times now), and perhaps creating more accident-recreation videos, as they serve as a sobering “in your face” awareness-refresher of how the confluence of issues can overwhelm even the most confident and capable of crew and aircraft.

    Ask any accident pilot if they would make the SAME choices again for their fateful flight, seeing the results that were produced from those choices, and many if not all would not make some or all of those choices a second time. I’ve had the opportunity to ask a few accident pilots this question and all admitted after some circuitous contrition that they wouldn’t do this or that, or even launch, and that they should have seen the issue and chose more wisely.

    I myself remember once having a planned flight to Tahoe from the bay area with 5 people for an event, and weather was moving through fast. I opted to delay departure by three hours, and one of the prominent passengers angrily responded “Then we are going to be at least three hours late for it!” I looked at them and asked “Would you rather be three hours late, or just LATE?” (Ok I gave my most disgusted look too, so that may have had some impact). The others were silent, and we departed several hours later, and arrived safely, and the delay had almost no meaningful impact on the event, but likely did on arriving safely, as gusts and shear were high over those hours.

    I frequently hear many justifying arguments: “If I don’t go, it will look bad” Well, think how bad it will look if you wreck and die? “It will cost me money if I don’t go” Have you looked at costs for insurance deductibles and aircraft repair lately, not to mention lost revenue? “The weather doesn’t look that bad” or “It should be ok” The sniff test for any shaky justification is to envision how it will look on an NTSB report, IF you live to provide it.

    In the end I think its better to risk losing a job making a safe decision, than definitely losing your job (and possibly life) making a hasty or poor one.

  • Avi Weiss

    BTW, here is the link to the AOPA accident Case study I referred to above.

  • Daniel Lee

    I don’t know if there is a regulation that would fix this but as a helicopter pilot I come across airplanes operating at my same flight level. We usually fly 700′ AGL and if airplanes would stay 500′ above us that would reduce collision hazards.

    An additional benefit would be there is a big controversy out here (Los Angeles) about helicopter noise. I live near an airport and almost all aircraft noise is from airplanes, not choppers. But the public may not be able to distinguish between the two and thus low flying planes are setting the stage for minimum altitude restrictions here that ironically may put helis and planes at the same altitude.

  • Glenn

    I am a new helicopter pilot, but an experienced fixed wing pilot – ATP, CFI/CFII, 20 years military and 9 years commercial airlines. So far in helicopters, I have noticed the tendency for helicopter pilots to consistently fly lower than is necessary from point to point, while not actually accomplishing the mission. I have heard the reason “to avoid the flow of fixed wing traffic” regularly. That may make sense right around the airport, but enroute it makes more sense to me to operate at similar altitudes as the fixed wing aircraft using the same see and avoid rules. Speeds are not so dissimilar that this is impractical, and the extra altitude relieves helicopter pilots of obstacle avoidance tasks to concentrate on traffic avoidance. In the Phoenix area, there is frequently more low altitude helicopter traffic condensed below 500′ than there is fixed wing traffic above that. Also, since there is no requirement to fly on the “500s” below 3000″ AGL, it makes little sense to “clump” at those altitudes and is smarter to pick a “weird” altitude like 2200 or 1900, that there is less chance someone else is trying to maintain that too. Higher altitudes afford more time to analyze a problem or choose a landing site for a precautionary landing or autorotation. I’ll admit that it is great fun flying low and looking around, but options diminish rapidly below 500′. In the military, we flew as high as the threat would permit, and flew low when required by the mission. Flying higher most of the time still makes sense to me for the extra time and situational awareness it affords.

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