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NTSB Begins Hearings On Helicopter Safety
Andy Pasztor and Christopher Conkey
The Wall Street Journal

A recent rise in the number of fatal helicopter crashes is prompting the industry to concede that years of voluntary federal regulations have resulted in an unacceptably low safety level.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board will open a set of wide-ranging hearings on helicopter safety that is expected to ratchet up pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to take a tougher stance on a segment of commercial aviation that has so far avoided the kind of intense scrutiny airline travel has faced.

The NTSB for years has championed stricter standards to protect the estimated two million Americans who ride in helicopters annually. But the FAA, along with much of the helicopter industry, has resisted implementing many of the recommendations for stricter oversight, saying formal regulations typically take too long to put in place and could force many smaller operators out of business.

Helicopter operators and manufacturers have successfully argued against across-the-board requirements for increased maintenance and additional safety equipment, such as ground-collision warning systems and night-vision goggles, on the grounds that they are costly and unnecessary. They instead have preferred voluntary compliance.

But some recent incidents have highlighted a safety situation that chopper manufacturers and operators now say is untenable. Only some operators have taken steps on their own. While airline-safety levels have climbed steadily over the years, crash rates for choppers haven't budged in two decades.

Even as helicopters become an increasingly crucial component of executive travel, tourism and industries such as oil and gas exploration, by some measures the odds of being in a serious chopper accident are roughly 300 times greater than for U.S. airline passengers. Emergency-medical crashes alone claimed at least 35 lives since late 2007, roughly twice as many as during the previous 12 months.

"What we're looking for is stronger oversight toward risk assessment, decision making and technology," said Matthew Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International, a trade group in Alexandria, Va.

The FAA's focus on voluntary industry compliance was intended to provide "a good head start" to improve safety, according to spokeswoman Laura Brown.

The FAA said it now will likely step up its oversight and is "considering possible rule making," Ms. Brown said. The agency favors drafting a "long-term safety initiative" requiring installation of flight-data recorders on helicopters and enhanced training for dispatchers of emergency-medical choppers, she said.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC's Gulf of Mexico operation temporarily stopped flying at least 12 Sikorsky S-76C models, built by a unit of United Technologies Corp., until investigators figure out why both engines on one helicopter shut down several weeks ago enroute to an oil platform, killing eight people. Safety officials eventually are likely to make further recommendations focused on improving the safety of such offshore flights.

One roadblock to new safety rules, air-safety experts say, is that basic engineering, maintenance and operational shortcomings of some fleets currently go overlooked. "Many helicopter design issues that could be fixed relatively simply are not getting fixed" because regulators aren't mandating the changes, said David Hoeppner, a University of Utah professor who specializes in analyzing metal fatigue and parts reliability on helicopters.

Given their extensive vibration and peculiar aerodynamics, helicopters require significantly more maintenance per hour of operation than airplanes. Yet FAA rules for approving new models, ensuring reliability of backup systems and collecting data about in-service performance are less stringent. "The industry has been in a state of denial about the problems for some time," said Kansas City, Mo., attorney Gary Robb, who has won some of the largest damage awards against the industry.

In addition to equipment, the NTSB hearing is expected to stress the importance of beefed-up training so pilots and flight dispatchers can better understand and cope with weather, terrain and other hazards. Some safety experts are pushing for a technical approach that combines installing digital flight-data recorders with onboard cameras designed to record a helicopter's flight path. After a crash, they would help investigators unravel what happened.

But some operators -- particularly in emergency services -- are worried that new federal safety mandates could wind up shuttering businesses already struggling during the recession.

Kevin Hutton, chief executive of Golden Hour Data Systems Inc., a San Diego provider of emergency flight-management services, said some major health-care facilities are now cutting back air-ambulance services.

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