Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before Heli-Expo '97
Helicopter Association International
Anaheim, California, February 3, 1997
Thank you, Chairman Kvamme for inviting me to be a part of this
important panel. You are to be commended for arranging a meeting
on the issue of "Flying to a Higher Standard." That
higher standard must include the issue of safety, a topic that
is sometimes uncomfortable to address, but one that we all avoid
at our peril.
I want to commend you, also, for the leadership you have shown
in attempting to balance the business interests of your members
with the safety and environmental concerns that all Americans
I hope this audience is aware of our investigations of tour operator
helicopter accidents and our intercession on behalf of tour operators
when the FAA established minimum altitudes over certain areas
when we thought those minimums were unreasonable and, far from
improving safety, actually posed safety problems of their own.
You may also remember the NTSB from our major study some years
back on the safety of helicopter emergency medical services.
As a result of that study, and the many recommendations we issued,
the EMS industry is much safer today than it was 10 years ago.
The one thing I want to assure you of is that the National Transportation
Safety Board takes rotorcraft safety very seriously. There are
more than 10,000 helicopters in the United States alone, and another
11,000 overseas. The manufacture and operation of rotorcraft
is a growing and important segment of our economy, and confidence
in U.S.-manufactured helicopters and U.S. operators is a necessary
element of keeping that segment thriving.
The NTSB treats helicopter accidents like all other aviation accidents,
devoting the same resources to rotorcraft investigations as to
those involving fixed wing aircraft. In 1994, we investigated
190 rotorcraft accidents that resulted in the deaths of 65 persons
aboard. In 1995, that number was down to 150 accidents, with
37 occupant fatalities, a marked improvement your industry should
be very proud of.
We know that helicopter operations present a higher risk than
fixed-wing operations because of the nature of the service they
provide. For example, in 1994, in Part 91 operations, rotorcraft
had an accident rate of 9.47 per 100,000 aircraft hours flown,
vs. 8.38 for fixed wing aircraft, and a fatal accident rate of
2.14 vs. 1.70 for fixed wing planes.
It is helicopters that hover over burning buildings or raging
rivers to rescue people, and it is helicopters that place large
equipment in confined spaces with pinpoint accuracy. Helicopters
save lives by whisking the injured from remote locations or major
highways, and also can provide unique perspectives of the beauty
of our natural wonders. I must add a personal note here. This
unique perspective should be able to be enjoyed by all Americans
just as all Americans should be able to enjoy our natural wonders
from trails or highway overlooks.
Because of these unique capabilities, we believe that helicopter
operations - so susceptible to pressures to push the limits of
the envelope -- should in fact always incorporate a large margin
of safety, or, as our theme suggests, "always fly to a higher
Let me mention that helicopter pilots have shown amazing airmanship
in their recent practice of hovering over high tension power lines
while repair work is being conducted by linemen suspended under
the helicopter. As risky as this practice sounds - and we have
had two accidents involving this type of service - it appears
that these operations are being provided safely. This is one
issue being considered by the ARAC meeting here this week.
A recent recommendation letter we issued is a perfect example
of the concern we have for the safety of rotorcraft operations,
and how we treat them with the same thoroughness that we bring
to all our investigations. On January 9, we issued 4 recommendations
to the FAA concerning external load operations by rotorcraft.
We cited 5 accidents to illustrate the problems we have noted,
but focused on a particular accident in San Jose, California,
A Sikorsky S58-JT was in a 100-foot hover above the roof of a
13-story building when the helicopter lost power and crashed onto
the roof. The aircraft was destroyed and the pilot died in the
accident. The operation was to have been staged from the west
parking lot of the building; however, the proposed landing area
in the parking lot was obstructed by numerous light poles. Instead,
the operation was staged from the roof of the building. The pilot
used a 100-foot "long line" lifting cable attached to
the helicopter to remove a large fan from the top of the building
and to place an 1,800-pound steam cleaning machine onto the roof.
About 17 minutes after the initiation of the flight, while the
cleaning machine was being disconnected from the cable, the helicopter
crashed onto the roof, rolled onto its right side, and became
engulfed in a postcrash fire.
The Board's investigation found no pre-existing problems with
the helicopter, but rather that the engines failed because of
fuel starvation. Because reducing the fuel load gives the helicopter
more lifting capability, it is not uncommon for pilots to commence
such operations with very little reserve fuel on-board. In fact,
during the past 12 years, the Board has found that 19 external
load operations have been precipitated by fuel exhaustion or starvation.
In many cases, surviving pilots have told us that they were relying
on fuel gauges to monitor their fuel consumption, and the Board
has found that the fuel quantity indicating systems in many aircraft
are not periodically checked for accuracy and recalibrated. The
Board is concerned that helicopters' fuel gauges may not be sufficiently
accurate for the safe conduct of such operations without periodic
recalibration of the systems.
Therefore, the Board sent to the FAA the following recommendations:
Did this create huge headlines or have constant CNN coverage?
No. But it took many months of investigation and analysis to
produce this recommendation package, as much work as is required
for similar packages in more high-profile air transport cases.
That is exactly my point. We take our responsibilities very
seriously when it comes to rotorcraft safety. And I hope that
my presence here underscores for you our belief that safe helicopter
operations are an important segment of our transportation system.
You, as American taxpayers, pay our salaries and you deserve
our very best.
On a final note, many of you are interested in our public use
aircraft responsibilities. In April 1995, a new law expanded
the Board's authority to include all public use aircraft, except
those operated by the Armed Forces or by U.S. intelligence agencies.
We want to make sure we don't read that exception too broadly.
The Forest Service is one example, since it often supplements
its fire fighting activity with military units. The critical
consideration is to ensure that the exception is not so broad
as to unduly limit our investigatory role, and not so narrow as
to intrude improperly in military concerns that have little or
no implication for civilian air safety.
Examples of public use aircraft that we investigate include sheriff's
department helicopters, emergency medical service helicopters
owned by municipal hospitals, law enforcement traffic control
aircraft and the previously mentioned firefighting services.
Our procedures are identical to what we follow when investigating
civilian aircraft. All of our factual information is a matter
of public record, and any recommendations we would issue to operators,
in this case to government agencies, would be made public.
We can do our part, but you have to do your part, too. In order
to help you do that, on April 24 and 25, the Safety Board will
host an international symposium in Washington on the role of corporate
culture in transportation safety. You as operators are the last
line of defense for ensuring a safe aviation system. I hope to
see some of you there.
Thank you for inviting me.