Helicopters are wonderful. They can rise vertically, transition forward and back, move left and right, and rotate around the vertical axis without changing their location. What enormous flexibility! This fabulous capability makes helicopters powerful tools for doing so many things.
This great agility, along with helicopters’ ability to operate away from airports and their cleared paths for approach and departure, comes with very apparent risks. That’s why discussions about safety are particularly important to the helicopter community. Sadly, much of this discussion hasn’t been as helpful or insightful as it could be—and in some cases, it can actually be counterproductive.
Much of the unhelpful talk has come from well-intentioned folks with lots of responsibility on the subject. After a very public accident, people like the secretary of transportation or the FAA administrator will often reassure the public with soothing comments like “Safety is our No. 1 priority” or “There can be no compromise with safety.”
The assertions are meant to be comforting, and they are. They assure the public of the firm resolve by people in power to do better. The problem is they aren’t—and can’t be—true. You can’t start an engine without compromising safety. If safety were our No. 1 priority, we’d never move an aircraft. It would always be safer to stay put.
Clearly, flying is, in itself, proof that moving the aircraft ranks ahead of safety. The problem is that these little intellectual dishonesties tend to end thoughtful discussion on the subject.
A while back, an FAA administrator declared that there can only be one level of safety. It is a comforting thought that, no matter what aircraft you fly in, you are equally safe. But once again, it can’t be true. A multi-engine helicopter with ultrareliable turbine engines will always be more dependable and capable, or “safer,” than a single-engine piston training helicopter.
When noted Australian thought leader and avid helicopter pilot Dick Smith (with two around-the-world helicopter flights under his belt) was chairman of the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, he steered people away from disingenuous talk about safety. He shocked them instead by calling for “affordable safety.”
Smith’s point was that when safety becomes too expensive, there can be a net reduction in safety. When excessively expensive safety measures are mandated, say for transportation to offshore oil rigs, the cost of flying goes up. This could drive people to take the less expensive and less safe marine option instead, resulting in a net increase in risk to passengers.
Moreover, safety advice can even generate resistance. It can be preachy, with an off-putting air of smugness and superiority. When commenting on an accident, people commonly suggest that the pilot did not exercise proper judgment or sound aeronautical decision-making. This comes across as vague, demeaning criticism that contributes little positive guidance.
So what is the alternative?
We need to change our safety vocabulary. In nearly every case, it is more insightful and helpful to talk about how we can best manage the risks of helicopter aviation.
The concept of risk management suggests a proactive habit of identifying hazards, assessing their severity and likelihood, and mitigating those that pose real dangers. For helicopters in particular, it is time to adopt clear, straightforward, and honest discussion about managing risks.
A wonderful example is provided by HAI President and CEO Matt Zuccaro. His simple, clear recommendation for lowering the risk of a flight in deteriorating conditions? “Land the damn helicopter!”