Read More: Neck/Back Pain and Hearing Loss: What's a Pilot to Do?
September 03, 2019

Helicopter pilots can mitigate these long-term effects of the career.

When you ask a group of helicopter pilots if their career has affected their health, a common response is “What? I don’t hear so good. I’m a helicopter pilot.”

All kidding aside, many pilots see neck or back pain and hearing loss as an inevitable consequence of spending years in the “helo hunch” in a vibrating aircraft. And yes, research does show that being a helicopter pilot can lead to neck and back pain, as well as hearing loss.

But there ARE things you can do to avoid these health issues.

Flight Helmets: The Good and the Bad

While this article will discuss some negative effects of long-term use of flight helmets, let me make it very clear: in my opinion, everyone who is riding inside a helicopter should be wearing a helmet designed for use in helicopters. The positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

The helmet’s primary purpose is to protect the head and eyes during impact in case of an accident or bird strike, and it works. Numerous studies have documented this, including Taneja and Wiegmann’s 2003 study in Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine and Roskop’s 2015 research for the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute.

Having said this, nothing is perfect, and there are some tradeoffs to wearing helmets. While they provide head and eye impact protection, helmets also make the head weigh more in case of impact. Years of use may contribute to neck and back neurological problems. They also do not provide enough hearing protection to completely mitigate hearing loss.

As a physiologist who works with helicopter flight crews, one of my goals is to help crew members retire with the ability to lift their grandchildren and hear them laugh. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

With the understanding that helmets are necessary for head and eye protection, as well as to provide a platform for communications and night-vision devices, the rest of this article will share what users need to know to prevent future neck and back pain, and hearing loss.

Keep in mind that the degree of pain and hearing loss experienced by the individual pilot will vary, based on factors including the type of helmet, type of airframe, and whether the aircraft is flown with doors on or off. Like so many things in life, physiological damage depends on a time/dose relationship: that is, how much and for how long.

Neck and Back Pain

Unfortunately, no studies have attempted to quantify the amount of neck and back pain experienced by pilots in the civil helicopter industry. However, a 2018 study by John Crowley, “Aircrew Neck Pain Prevention and Management Insights from NATO,” examined several studies from militaries around the world documenting the very same problems. A literature search I just completed brought up 10 similar studies.

Yes, these are military studies, but the bottom line is they examined helicopter pilots and found more reports of neck and back pain than in other military occupations. The reality is, the militaries have the scientists, funding, and desire to examine such issues, and we certainly can extrapolate from their data.

In addition to the weight of the helmet, a few other factors contribute to the incidence of neck problems. While night-vision goggles (NVGs) may only weigh slightly more than 1 lb, that weight is concentrated at the front, making the pilot’s head front-heavy. Aircraft vibration also plays a role, and that varies, depending on the airframe.

The purpose of the flight can play a role too. Turning the head around in an orbit and craning the neck as law enforcement flight crews often do can exacerbate problems. Further contributing to back problems, most helicopters put flight crews (mainly those sitting up front) in an unusual position that does not allow for sitting up straight, the “helo-hunch.”

When considering neck pain, no one single factor is to blame. Helmet weight, NVGs, and aircraft vibration all contribute, but the combination of them is the real culprit.

As I mentioned, retiring with neck and back pain is a concern for pilots. However, I am also concerned that neck and back pain could affect the operational fitness of working flight crews. Two possibilities are that inflight pain will challenge situational awareness and will reduce the head’s range of motion.

As with neck problems, numerous military studies illustrate that long-term helmet use is associated with back problems. In 2010, Lt. Paul Sargent, M.D., and Lt. Angela Bachmann, M.D., reported that 82–92% of otherwise healthy young aviators reported back pain, and 44–50% had pain during flight. While this is significant in itself, Sargent and Bachmann’s study, “Back Pain in the Naval Rotary Wing Community,” documented that this pain resulted in decreased concentration (54–66%), hurried flights (16%), and cancelled flights (7%). A study by the Australian Navy had almost identical findings (64% had pain, 55% had trouble concentrating, 16% reported hurried flights, and 7% refused flights).

Neck and back issues bring with them concerns of decreased operational readiness. These include cancelled flights, which can result in lost work days and distraction, as well as hurried flights and attrition.

The Way Out: Exercise

The best way to mitigate neck and back issues is through stretching and exercise. Many individuals do not exercise at all, and even people who exercise regularly often do not exercise their necks. However, the medical papers and presentations I’ve reviewed unanimously conclude that mitigation comes down to exercise. I am not speaking about specific exercises but a well-rounded resistance program that includes the neck. Stretching can provide short-term relief, with the goal of increasing blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the tissues.

Another major mitigation for back pain is to redesign the seats, but until the military requires this in new purchases, it will not happen. There is, however, one other way to lessen the back pain you may be experiencing: provide additional support to the lumbar, or lower back, region. Lumbar support cushions are widely available and may at least partially mitigate the pain.

Hearing Loss

When discussing hearing-related issues, it is important to understand the difference between loudness and pitch. Loudness is the impact of the sound (pressure) wave on the ear drum, or tympanic membrane, and is measured in decibels (dB). The pitch is the frequency (high vs. low) of the sound and dictates where in the cochlea (inner ear) the sound is picked up. Pitch is measured in hertz (Hz).

We are mostly concerned with low frequencies, between 100 Hz and 1,000 Hz. In helicopter operations, this noise is continuous and at high intensity. It originates from several sources, including but not limited to engines, driveshafts, transmissions, and rotor blades. Frequencies affecting crew members come from the tail rotor blades (96–100 Hz), main rotor blades (10–20 Hz), and blade slap (20–1000 Hz).

The US Surgeon General has established 85 dB as the maximum level of continuous unprotected exposure to steady-state noise for 8 hours. As the dBs increase, the amount of permitted exposure decreases (the time/dose relationship). To avoid noise becoming hazardous, it should be no greater than 85 dBs if continuous, or it should be an impulse/impact noise no greater than 140 dBs.

As with the neck and back pain, hearing loss can also lead to operational compromises. The obvious challenge is hearing and understanding radio communications. Another is the loss of ability to hear sound changes in the engine.

I have not found any studies that illustrate hearing-loss issues as related to helicopter operations. A 1990 study on tank gunner performance and hearing impairment published in the Army RD&A Bulletin correlates hearing loss with incorrect commands heard by gunner, target identification, and wrong targets killed. Regardless of the focus of the study, one can see how hearing loss can impact helicopter operations.

Adding a secondary layer of protection would be the way to reduce this problem. Many studies show that simply inserting foam-type ear plugs under the helmet makes a big difference. Some prefer the convenience of communications ear plugs (CEPs), which provide hearing protection and can also connect to comm systems.

Think Long-Term Health

While flying in helicopters can produce negative physical effects such as neck and back pain and/or hearing loss, there are steps you can take to mitigate most of the effects. I realize exercising and wearing hearing protection are not popular topics, but before dismissing them, I urge pilots to consider the alternative: pain and hearing loss. By just modifying your lifestyle slightly, it is possible to significantly reduce those issues and avoid partial disabilities and early retirement.

Read More: Middle Georgia State University: A Successful Model for Aviation Education
June 10, 2019

Georgia's best-kept secret in aviation training.

The choice of where to receive your initial flight or maintenance training will affect your entire aviation career. The contacts you make, the quality of your instructors, the habits and attitudes you acquire—these will follow you for years.

One example of the collegiate model for aviation training is the School of Aviation at Middle Georgia State University (MGA). Offering a wide variety of certificates and majors, this school has a vibrant community of students preparing to take their place in the aviation industry.

Serving the Entire Aviation Community

While other MGA campuses also offer flight training, its Eastman Campus, home to the MGA School of Aviation, is devoted to aviation studies. When you visit the campus, it’s hard to miss the aviation connection. The Piper Aztec located near the front entrance of the school is one giveaway, as is the control tower and the runway that runs parallel to the campus.

The 22-acre campus contains hangars for the school’s 30 airplanes and four helicopters (three Guimbal Cabri G2s and a Robinson R44). The average age of the fleet is under 10 years old; all aircraft have glass cockpits. The School of Aviation has its own maintenance and refurbishment facilities and employs licensed A&Ps to keep the fleet running. They complete all maintenance and repairs except for avionics, which go to a local avionics shop.

The primary academic building contains academic classrooms, maintenance and air traffic control classrooms, and a dispatch center. A 147-room residence hall provides on-campus housing for students.

In addition to several fixed-wing flight training devices, MGA recently purchased an Elite TH-100 flight simulator, which is used for instrument training  by helicopter student pilots. “We find that simulators are great teaching tools, in part because of the opportunity for immediate feedback,” says School of Aviation Dean Adon Clark. “If you’re in the pattern and there’s a problem, you still have to fly the aircraft while you’re trying to listen to your instructor, whereas with a simulator, you can pause, discuss what just happened, and then we can back it right up and start over.”

The Eastman campus hosts 739 students pursuing a variety of aviation majors, everything from helicopter flight technology to management. Enrollments are up, to the point where the school may soon establish a waiting list for some programs.

In addition to being an approved Part 147 aviation maintenance school, MGA offers two-year degrees in both aviation structural technology and aviation maintenance technology, as well as a four-year degree in technical management. Out of the school’s current enrollment, 135 students are pursuing degrees in aircraft maintenance and 25 are studying aircraft structural technology. 

MGA also offers academic credit for some FAA qualifications. This provides seasoned aviation maintenance technicians with the opportunity to build their academic credentials and move into management while leveraging their knowledge and experience. 

The Eastman campus features its own state-of-the-art facility for air traffic management students; the school offers an associate’s degree in air traffic management with a current enrollment of 35 students. As part of the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI), graduates of the MGA program are eligible to bypass the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is the first five weeks of qualification training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. MGA graduates are also eligible for Pool 1 hiring by the FAA, along with military veterans; applicants from the general population are assigned to Pool  2.

MGA is a Part 141 approved flight school. In addition to earning commercial, instrument, multiengine, ATP, and CFI ratings, students can receive a bachelor’s degree in aviation science and management, with concentrations in flight, management, or helicopter flight. MGA has 422 flight students, 10 of which are pursuing helicopter ratings. The flight training program logged 14,000 flight hours last year.

Clark believes MGA students benefit by living, working, and socializing together. “Everyone on the Eastman campus is an aviation student. A pilot may be roommates with an aircraft mechanic student or an aircraft traffic controller. Or there may be a mechanic, air traffic controller, and pilot all in the same class, so they get exposed to all aspects of aviation through their roommates, classmates, and schoolmates.”

This exposure helps MGA students to better understand each other’s work and the challenges they face. “I think it’s vital that they learn to communicate early on with each other,” says Clark. “Our pilots are comfortable talking to a mechanic on the floor if there’s an issue with the aircraft, or it’s easier for a mechanic to explain a process to a pilot. They have been interacting with these types of folks throughout their collegiate career.”

Read More: HAI HELI-EXPO 2019: The View from the Exhibit Floor
June 10, 2019

Innovations keep the helicopter industry looking toward the future.

An optimistic mood prevailed at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019 in Atlanta as attendees and exhibitors kept an eye on a rapidly changing future. While hopes had been high for a faster turnaround, it was clear on the show floor that the helicopter industry's economic recovery is proceeding more slowly than many would like. Yet this slower growth has created a unique opportunity: innovation.

“The industry is certainly better than it was but not as good as it could be,” Safran USA President Peter Lengyel says, summing up the overarching theme for this year’s helicopter show. “What I see is this strategic pause, where companies have the time and financial resources to focus on innovative changes that can be brought to the industry. You don’t have the time for this in a fast-growing economy.”

Here’s a look at some of the business highlights of HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019.

Read More: HAI Does ATL
June 10, 2019

It takes a city to make a village, and it happens every year.

First come the crates. Cubes and tubes of every size, heft and, notably, point of origin. Some are beautifully crafted, with interesting woods, careful joinery, and on-brand markings. Others less so, with utilitarian materials and slapdash scrawls.

They arrive by truck, perhaps, or by train, steamship, or plane. From the loading dock, they are unceremoniously whisked to an appointed address and deposited on a bare concrete fl oor.

Soon this will be a bustling community, alive with people looking for their next deal or supplier, sure, but also with old friends and new, telling tales, catching up, planning for the year ahead.

But first come the crates.

Welcome to HAI HELI-EXPO 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

 

Read More: eVTOL 101
May 23, 2019

What you need to know about the "future of vertical flight."

The newest player in transportation technology is the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and its projected use for air taxis and urban air mobility (UAM).

At HAI HELI-EXPO 2019 in Atlanta, eVTOL appeared in everything from panel discussions and education sessions to prototypes on the show floor. One panel discussion, The Electric VTOL Revolution, hosted by the Vertical Flight Society, brought together leaders in eVTOL to discuss where the industry stands now and where it’s headed in the future.

Why eVTOL and UAM?

eVTOL describes any type of aircraft that takes off and lands vertically using electric or hybrid-electric propulsion. This covers everything from ultralights and personal air vehicles to future air-taxi models such as the Bell Nexus.

eVTOLs could be used in many missions that helicopters already do, from package delivery to disaster relief. But eVTOL designers and manufacturers point to the technology’s advantages over traditional aircraft: eVTOLs could be more cost-efficient to operate and could carry increased payloads, all while reducing noise.

UAM is only one future application for those vehicles. Like most new technologies, UAM is being developed to solve a problem: “If I live in a city with impossible automobile traffic that can’t support more ground transportation infrastructure, can I bring my daily commute to the sky to get around quickly and efficiently?”

Why Now?

“eVTOL has exciting potential that we think will revolutionize not only vertical flight, but society as a whole,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. “We have been examining the potential for eVTOL for six years, and it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen—it’s a matter of when.”

Hirschberg explains that the time to explore and embrace this technology is now. “We are currently experiencing huge advances in electric motors and batteries, as well as the modernization of design tools, computer simulation of fuselages, and all aspects of flight control that we didn’t have five to 10 years ago,” says Hirschberg. “There has even been discussion about moving to performance-based regulations and certification for aircraft, which would be a major game changer.”

“We think about the question of ‘why now?’ a lot at Bell,” says Scott Drennan, vice president of Bell’s innovation team. “We see this as market demand and technology coming together at the same time.”

Read More: New Products from HAI HELI-EXPO 2019
May 23, 2019

Small businesses bring innovative products to the industry.

While news from large companies dominated the daily headlines at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019, the industry’s small-business ­innovators had their own stories to tell. From safety programs to inventive crew resource management solutions, new products and services supporting everyone from pilots and operators to OEMs made their debut on the show floor. Below is a sampling of the small-business creative spirit that keeps our industry growing.

New Services

HeliExperts International: Heliport Safety Certification

With no universal oversight regulations, heliports around the world vary considerably in level of safety. HeliExperts International (HEI) launched its Heliport Safety and Certification Program at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019 to address critical industry needs for increased heliport risk mitigation. Using best practices from the FAA, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and industry leaders, the program seeks to identify risks before they can cause an accident.

“Without standardized heliport regulations regarding heliport safety, the vast majority of heliports contain significant safety risks,” says HEI Managing Member Ray Syms, whose company has designed more than 850 heliports and audited more than 3,000. “The idea behind the program is to provide a solution for operators, insurance companies, and ­municipalities to determine if heliport risks are mitigated to the highest degree possible.” For more information, visit the company's website at www.heliexperts​​international.com.

Napoleon Engineering Services: Bearing Engineering

With OEM supply-chain headaches slowing deliveries, manufacturers are bringing more services in-house to meet customer deadlines. Napoleon Engineering Services offers a unique service: reverse engineering type-certified bearings in support of parts manufacturing approval authorization.

“Our mission is to remove barriers to supply chains due to the difficulty in obtaining bearings,” says Chris Napoleon, president and chief engineer at Napoleon Engineering Services. “We reduce lead times to 16–26 weeks, compared to OEM lead times that are typically 50–90 weeks.”

The company typically performs reverse engineering services in about six weeks, delivering a full technical packet for submission to the FAA. Napoleon Engineering also offers full bearing manufacturing capability with the ability to manufacture bearings with outside diameters between ¾ inch and 14 inches. For more information, visit  www.nes​bearings.com.

New Programs

Flightdocs: Cloud-Based Flight Operations Platform

Flightdocs unveiled its Flightdocs Operations tracking and communications platform. Flightdocs Operations integrates with the company’s popular Flightdocs HMX maintenance tracking platform, currently used by more than 200 operators for more than 1,000 helicopters, to create a complete end-to-end operations management solution for helicopter operators. The platform’s core functions include flight scheduling, service planning, crew and passenger management, customizable flight logs, and expense reporting, and includes a secure messenger communication tool.

“Flightdocs Operations is the modern, cloud-based, real-time mobile platform our customers have been requesting,” says Flightdocs President Greg Heine. According to Heine, 12 companies were already signed up for the program by the first day of HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019. For more information, visit www.flightdocs.com.

New Products

Eye in the Sky: Cockpit Data Recorder

In February 2015, the 18-year-old son of New Zealand helicopter legend Louisa “Choppy” Patterson was killed when the Robinson R44 he was riding in broke apart in midflight. In response to this tragedy, Patterson began developing Eye in the Sky, a durable and lightweight audio, video, and data in-flight recorder.

“The accident report said there was an in-flight break-up, but there was no determination of probable cause,” says Patterson, who is also CEO of Over the Top, a New Zealand–based air tour operator. “Had there been a product like Eye in the Sky onboard, there wouldn’t be as many questions [about the cause of the accident]. We could increase safety.”

The crash-resistant camera and data recorder captures HD video, high-resolution images, and data, including location (via GPS), airspeed, altitude, g-forces, pitch, roll, and yaw. The device’s SD card can hold 40 hours of data. The onboard battery continues to record after shutdown and immediate power loss. For more information, visit www.eyeinthesky.co.nz.

Aviation Specialties Unlimited: Night-Vision Goggles

Once known as a reseller of night-vision products, as well as service and repair, Aviation Specialties Unlimited, Inc. (ASU) is now an OEM. The company introduced its new white phosphor E3 Lightweight Night Vision Goggles in Atlanta. Paired with the Aeronox mount and battery pack, the full system shaves 200 grams off standard night-vision goggle weights.

“Weight is a big concern, and it always comes back to haunt pilots as neck and back issues,” says ASU Chief Executive Officer Mike Atwood. “We listened to what pilots wanted and developed a lighter, more versatile goggle system with the expanded capabilities they need for mission success.”

In addition to its light weight, the new goggle system is easily repairable, fits multiple helmet styles, and features a retractable breakaway lanyard. For more information, visit the company’s website at www.asu​-nvg.com.

Read More: HAI Salutes Excellence in Vertical Lift
May 23, 2019

Celebrating the best in vertical aviation.

Every day, on every continent, members of the vertical-lift community do amazing things with helicopters and other vertical-lift aircraft. They get jobs done that can’t be done any other way.

But for some, simply getting the job done is not enough. Whether in a single instance or throughout a career, these pilots, maintenance technicians, flight instructors, safety professionals, operators, and industry leaders from around the world excel—and set an example of excellence that inspires our industry.

For more than 50 years, HAI has encouraged and celebrated the highest standards of professionalism within the vertical-lift community through its Salute to Excellence Awards. The awards reflect outstanding achievements from across our industry.

At the 2019 Salute to Excellence Awards luncheon on March 6 during HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019 in Atlanta, the following honorees were recognized. HAI congratulates them and celebrates their contributions to our industry. Their passion for excellence is an inspiration to us all.

Nominations for the 2020 Salute to Excellence Awards, to be celebrated at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2020 in Anaheim, will be accepted beginning May 31, 2019. Visit rotor.org/salute for more information.

Read More: Robinson Rocks Customer Service
February 28, 2019

It’s official: The Robinson Helicopter Company knows a thing or two about customer service.

A company that produces only three models of helicopters, Robinson recently achieved a milestone by being recognized by Vertical magazines’s 2018 Helicopter and Engine Manufacturers Survey as having the highest customer service satisfaction ratings within the helicopter manufacturing industry.

Listening and responding to Robinson operators is one of the primary factors in the company’s high customer service marks. Its customer service team treats all owners and operators equally, regardless of whether they have one helicopter or a fleet.

“Sales is the just the beginning of a relationship,” offers Kurt Robinson, company president and chairman. “You put the trust in us to buy our helicopter, and so we will absolutely support it.” 
 

Read More: The Raider Rises
February 28, 2019

Is a bird in hand really worth two in the bush? Sikorsky Helicopters and its parent, Lockheed Martin, certainly are betting that way.

They’re wagering heavily that their 2010 Collier Trophy–winning X2 rigid coaxial compound helicopter design, flying since May 2015 aboard their S-97 Raider technology demonstrator, will be worth more to the US Army than two (actually up to five) other unconventional but not-yet-flying aircraft that competitors may offer the army.
 

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