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 share.

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 standard.".

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, in 1994.

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.

Jim Hall's Speeches