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North Sea Crash Underscores Poor Progress in Helicopter Safety
by Andy Pasztor & Daniel Michaels
WALL STREET JOURNAL
9/06/2013

The fatal crash of a Eurocopter oil-rig helicopter in the North Sea last month underscores stalled progress in reducing commercial helicopter accidents world-wide.

In spite of advances in cockpit technology and enhanced pilot training, helicopters' global safety record has failed to improve dramatically over the past few years—and still lags far behind standards for airliners.

That is particularly bad news for Eurocopter, a division of Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., which even before the latest accident was struggling to overcome persistent safety concerns among regulators and oil-rig workers.

"We have reputation and image damage in the U.K. that we clearly must face," Eurocopter Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said earlier this week.

Flying at night in low clouds, the Super Puma helicopter went down roughly two miles short of the Shetland Islands on Aug. 23, killing four of the 18 people aboard. Operators voluntarily grounded flights of the AS332 model over British waters, though that restriction was largely lifted six days later.

Investigators still haven't identified the cause of the accident, which both pilots survived. But on Thursday, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch issued an update disclosing that both engines were working prior to impact and no "technical failure has been identified." The statement, which indicates the probe is focusing on weather, navigation issues, possible pilot confusion or other nonmechanical factors, was significant because the model is a workhorse for oil producers, law-enforcement agencies and even some heads of state around the globe.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the number of civil helicopter crashes has stayed basically flat over the past decade at around 400 accidents annually world-wide. Despite extensive industry efforts and high-profile pledges to raise the safety bar, the global fatal-accident rate for all choppers has improved only slightly since 2007; and the rate for those used in oil-and-gas operations also has remained largely unchanged through most of those years.

While the design and aerodynamic principles of any helicopter make it more prone to mechanical failures and in-flight hazards than fixed-wing aircraft, critics say the industry has fallen far short of its own safety projections.

"This is an industry that by its own admission has an unacceptably high accident rate," according to Gary Robb, a plaintiffs' attorney from Kansas City, Mo., whose firm has litigated scores of civil accident cases. Particularly in offshore and air-ambulance operations, according to Mr. Robb, bad weather and poor visibility frequently mean "we're sending pilots out on missions that are inherently dangerous.

"In 2009, after a spate of air-ambulance crashes in the U.S. sparked a public outcry, helicopter makers and operators stepped up an international safety campaign and reiterated the goal of slashing world-wide accidents rates 80% by 2016. But with the number of accidents in this country spiking in the last quarter of 2012 and the start of 2013, senior officials of that voluntary effort told industry gatherings earlier this year that the latest global and U.S. trends were still running nearly three times higher than that goal.

More worrisome to some experts is that even modest improvements in the U.S. accident rate essentially stopped around 2010. "So far this year, we're seeing an uptick in U.S. accidents," said Scott Burgess, who heads the helicopter operations program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and serves on two major U.S. industry safety groups. "It's pretty clear," Mr. Burgess said in an interview, that many accidents "come down to pilot decision-making.

"The accident rate for choppers used in U.S. oil and gas operations has hovered around eight fatal crashes per one-million flight hours. By contrast, the risk for a U.S. airline passenger averages out to roughly one fatality in 45 million flights. In nine of the last 10 years, no U.S. passenger carrier has suffered a fatal crash.

Adopting strategies from the airlines, the International Helicopter Safety Team, or IHST, a voluntary body established in 2006 to lead the safety drive, has worked to analyze dangers in rotary flight and develop measures to tackle problems. The Super Puma accident is "an additional reason ... to understand why incidents continue to happen and how to address them," said Michel Masson, secretary of the European arm of the IHST, and a safety expert at the European Aviation Safety Agency.

Matt Zuccaro, industry co-chair of the IHST, wasn't available for comment.

Eurocopter has defended the safety record of various versions of its Super Puma helicopters, three of which have now gone down in the North Sea since last spring. Another version of the helicopter, dubbed the EC225, only resumed service in early August after a 10-month grounding due to the pair of earlier, nonfatal ditchings.

"The Super Puma family's overall safety record is excellent," said Mr. Faury. "One reason there are so many Super Pumas in the North Sea oil-and-gas business is their safety."

While the rate of fatal accidents in Super Pumas may be low relative to their heavy use, the grounding and recent crash have sparked an unprecedented social-media campaign in the U.K. against the Eurocopter model. Involving thousands of people, the grass-roots effort seeks to keep oil-rig workers off those helicopters.

The company's chief executive said "there is a very big gap between perceptions of operators and professionals," versus "what is said on social media." He added that "we must close the gap," so Eurocopter will "respond with facts and figures" linked to a broader review of helicopter safety in the U.K.

Executives at BP BP +0.34% PLC said they won't resume flights of the model that crashed Aug. 23 in the North Sea until the recent accident's cause is known. France's Total SA FP.FR +0.42% plans to resume Super Puma flights in coming days, but to address concerns and build confidence among workers, the flights will initially carry only senior executives out to offshore platforms before passenger flights are resumed.

Britain has long been a world leader on helicopter safety, largely because its lucrative oil and gas industry relies on the aircraft to shuttle crews to and from rigs, frequently in dangerous weather conditions.

"The North Sea is the most demanding flying you can do," said David Chapman, a former North Sea helicopter pilot and retired senior U.K. air-safety official. In the U.S., where conditions tend to be less severe, joint industry and government data indicate that "pilot judgment and actions" contributed to roughly 80% of accidents that were studied.

Mr. Chapman also noted that "there is no comparison" in safety between helicopters and airplanes. Almost every system on an airplane has at least one backup, but many critical helicopter components can have no redundancy. Vibration on helicopters dramatically increases stress on parts.

"A helicopter, by its design, is a vehicle which is less airworthy than its fixed-wing counterpart," Mr. Chapman said.

--Selina Williams contributed to this article.




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