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10 Essential Checks Before You Step Into A Helicopter
Stephane Fitch
Forbes Blog
11/03/2010

French Gendarmerie rescue helicopter taking of...

I've never taken a ride in a helicopter, but I'd like to. My wife, a veteran skydiver, has jumped out of copters and she says they're a blast.

If I ever do ride in a helicopter, no matter the circumstances, I'm going to keep in mind some advice passed along by an attorney in Kansas City named Gary Robb, who has spent his career contemplating the dark side of these remarkable machines.

Robb is the leading helicopter-crash litigator in the U.S., with the two biggest such jury verdicts ($350 million and $70 million) in history. I was reminded of Robb last month when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a batch of a proposed new regulations for operators of helicopter commuter lines, helicopter tours and air ambulances. Helicopter makers have taken strides to make their gear safer than it was 20 years ago, and the government has been eager to reduce the number of deaths in accidents even further. A rash of nine fatal crashes involving medevac helicopters occurred in the 11 months ended October 2008, claiming 35 lives and prompting the National Transportation Safety Board to hold hearings in 2009, and we wrote an item about Robb last year.

Unfortunately, Robb's still asked to take on more cases than he can handle. Statistics from 2001 to 2005 show that a hour spent riding in a helicopter was about 40% more likely to result in an accident than an hour spent in a fixed-wing aircraft. And more than 150 people have been killed in helicopter crashes in the past five years. Even though I am well aware that my bike ride to work in Chicago's Loop is far more dangerous than any flight I'll ever take in any aircraft, I don't think that's a reason to be cavalier if I get into a helicopter someday.

Robb, who recently published a lawyer's textbook titled Helicopter Crash Litigation, says he's pleased by many of the FAA's proposed rules. The proposals include measures that would require medical helicopters to carry new warning systems that alert the pilot to approaching terrain and up the amount of training for pilots. But perhaps not surprisingly, Robb doesn't think the new rules go far enough. And of course, the rules are just proposals for now. They are in the FAA's public-comments phase. It's possible that they could be weakened by the time they're put into effect.

So I asked Robb to come up with a simple checklist that he thinks could boost the margin of safety if I ever get near a helicopter. Here's what he gave me:

1. Terrain Awareness and Warning System. Make sure your helicopter has one. The proposed FAA rules would require them for air ambulances but not for all other types of flights.

2. Night Vision Goggles. Most crashes occur at night. Make sure your pilot is carrying these with him if it's dark or getting dark.

3. Wire Strike Protection System. Power lines and utility wires are virtually impossible to see from the air and account for many helicopter crashes each year when a pilot inadvertently flies into them.  Although not always effective, this equipment may help cut the wire so that the helicopter may safely pass through.

4. Pilot Hours  - Your pilot should have a minimum of 5,000 hours of actual helicopter flight time.  The new FAA rules wouldn't require that much time. But thatÂ’s what pilots who fly air ambulances for the Mayo Clinic have. It should be essential for you.

5. Model-Specific Training. Not all helicopters are the same.  Be sure your pilot has training in that specific model helicopter before you board.

6. Pilot's Accident History. If that pilot has had three helicopter accidents in the last five years, do not be the fourth!

7. Maintenance. Find out whether the company strictly adheres to helicopter manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule for routine inspection and parts replacement and utilizes an Approved Aircraft Inspection Program (AAIP) by FAA.

8. Flight Risk Assessment. Who decides if this bird should stay on the ground? The operator should use an independent risk evaluator for weather and other environmental conditions like volcanic ash or even heavy pollutants which can effect helicopter operation and pilot visibility. Somebody outside the company should have the power to veto the pilot's decision to fly.

9. Adequate Insurance Coverage. The size of their policy and their willingness to answer your questions about their coverage is a strong indication of their business practices and overall safety commitment.

10. "The CBS Factor." Is the helicopter clean, bright and shiny? If it isn't, stay away.




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