FAA working to bring big changes to helicopter safety
Friday, December 04, 2015
In November, the FAA announced it has tasked the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee's (ARAC) Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group to look at possible solutions that would increase occupant survivability of older-design helicopters in an accident — particularly as they relate to blunt-force injury and post-crash fire.
The FAA noted that while the overall helicopter accident rate has fallen in recent years, the fatal accident rate has not, despite the requirements for helicopter cabin and fuel systems to undergo a stricter rewrite in the 1980s and 1990s.
The specific parts of the Federal Aviation Regulations involved are: (14 CFR 27.562, 27.785, 29.562 and 29.785); structural requirements that maintain a survivable volume and restrain large items of mass above and behind the occupant (14 CFR 27.561 and 29.561); and fuel systems that reduce the likelihood of an immediate post-crash fire (14 CFR 27.952 and 29.952).
However, the FAA noted those new rules did not apply to newly manufactured helicopters type-certificated under older designs — those were "grandfathered" in, and therefore exempted from things like crash-resistant fuel cells and energy-absorbing seats. In fact, by the end of 2014, only 16 percent of the U.S. helicopter fleet had the fuel cells and 10 percent had the seats. Think popular medevac birds like the Airbus/Eurocopter H125/AS350 and the Bell 407.
The working group will be tasked with preparing a series of reports over the next six to 24 months, and there should be little doubt where the FAA is going with this. The new rules will require the expensive modification of the existing fleet to enhance the survivability of otherwise survivable accidents by preserving the occupants' ability to safely egress the aircraft in the event of a hard landing.
NASA has been doing research into this for years as has the FAA's Rotorcraft Directorate and Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. The research to date is compelling that fatalities in otherwise survivable accidents are in fact more likely in these older-design helicopters.
Fashioning reasonable rules to deal with the situation will require a good deal of common sense on the part of all the stakeholders. Mandating expensive structural modifications to helicopters near the end of their useful lives makes no sense, but some remedies are readily available for helicopters that still have ample useful lives including energy-absorbing crew seats, inflatable shoulder belts, emergency quick-release doors and fuel cells/bladders.
The technology is there today. The key is judicious and consensus application of this technology as opposed to regulatory over-reaching. It's important to always be mindful that the most essential safety component of any flight cannot be legislated: a pilot's good judgment.
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