A 4-Star Helicopter Safety Rating System
By Gene Trainor, FAA Communications Specialist/Technical Writer
Many of us in the helicopter safety business have long promoted the idea that the entire helicopter community needs to commit to safety. Across the spectrum — from pilots and mechanics to manufacturers and government agencies — that message has taken hold.
The Helicopter Association International’s Land and Live campaign, the Airborne Public Safety Association’s Safety First campaign, and the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team’s safety enhancements are just a few examples of this commitment to safety.
We need to do more. The United States has not seen a sustained decrease in the helicopter fatal accident rate for 15 years. We see the rate drop for a year or two, but an increase soon follows. Consider these numbers: the fatal rates in 2018 and 2019 are about the same as they were in 2005.
To help turn the tide, FAA rotorcraft safety advocates developed a helicopter safety ratings concept for certain categories of helicopter design and equipment, similar to the tools that the automobile industry uses. The helicopter concept proposes a four-star system.
The concept addresses critical occupant protection categories, such as crash resistant seats and structures, crash resistant fuel tanks, and equipment that protects or reduces the impact of bird strikes. It also addresses technology to help prevent and recover from loss of control, reduce collisions with obstacles during flight, and avoid in-flight collisions with other aircraft.
The FAA is challenging the helicopter industry to further develop the concept and implement it as a voluntary education and safety promotion tool. Ideally, increased public understanding of the safety benefits will prompt an increased demand for helicopters that offer these designs and equipment.
Fundamental to the FAA proposal is that all FAA type-certificated helicopters are safe since they met the required FAA safety regulations when they were type-certificated. The ratings concept acknowledges voluntary options intended to increase safety.
To improve the chances of surviving a crash and reduce the chances of a crash occurring in the first place, the proposal addresses the two general safety focus areas of design and equipment (occupant protection and accident avoidance) in several ways. These include items such as crash resistant seats and crash resistant structures, which would reduce blunt force trauma injuries. Also included are crash resistant fuel systems, which decrease the likelihood or delay post-crash fires and allow occupants time to escape a damaged helicopter. Bird strike resistant windshields, such as those made from polycarbonates, and deterrents (e.g., lights and audio), would go a long way to prevent or mitigate damage (or worse) from bird strikes.
In addition, the concept addresses fatalities due to loss of control, hitting objects during low-altitude flights, and in-flight aircraft collisions. Examples of equipment for these categories include autopilots to address loss of control, HTAWS to avoid hitting objects, and TCAS to avoid in-flight collisions.
This safety ratings concept was first introduced publicly during the virtual 2020 FAA International Rotorcraft Safety Conference. Jorge Castillo, manager of the FAA Strategic Policy Rotorcraft Section, reports that there was immediate positive feedback. We urge industry to build upon this concept and voluntarily implement it soon.
Gene Trainor is a communications specialist/technical writer with the FAA Compliance and Airworthiness Division and a Rotorcraft Collective team member.