What is involved in a helicopter accident?

Because of their unique flying capabilities, helicopters have gained a reputation as the workhorses of the aviation world. Their ability to fly vertically, low to the ground, and hover in position makes these aircraft a key tool and mode of transportation for emergency medical services, commercial transport, law enforcement, recreation and sightseeing, news reporting, offshore use, logging, firefighting, utility work, and several other civil applications.

Compared to other forms of air transport, however, helicopters are statistically the least safe aircraft. According to the Aviation Underwriters Association, the U.S. helicopter accident rate is 30 percent higher than the U.S. general aviation accident rate.

The International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), a group of 250 helicopter professionals established in 2006 to improve helicopter safety over a 10-year period of time, says helicopter accident rates have remained “unacceptably high,” showing no “significant improvement” worldwide over the last two decades.

In fact, helicopter experts at an international helicopter safety symposium noted that instead of improving, there were signs the safety rate could be declining slightly. About 9.1 accidents occur for every 100,000 helicopter operating hours, according to IHST, compared to a rate of 0.175 airplane accidents per 100,000 hours.

Helicopter Association International’s compilation of U.S. civil helicopter safety trends shows that 762 helicopter accidents occurred from the beginning of 2007 through the first quarter of 2012. Of those incidents, 111 crashes were fatal, resulting in 240 deaths and about twice as many injuries.

All helicopters are highly complex flying machines. They contain a multitude of mechanical and electronic systems that demand the greatest levels of care and skill in their design, maintenance, and piloting.

Most helicopter crashes are caused by some form of pilot error, including improper or insufficient pilot training; operating the aircraft in poor weather and other unsafe conditions; failure to plan or improperly planning a flight; and poor or improper response to mechanical failure and environmental problems. Other forms of operational error, outside the cockpit, include faulty air traffic control communications and improper maintenance.

A smaller number of helicopter crashes have been blamed on mechanical and electrical malfunctions exclusively. These problems can originate in the design stages with faulty design of the aircraft or one or more of its components. Or they can occur as errors in the manufacturing and quality control stages.

Liability for helicopter crashes may fall upon a single entity but more typically will be shared among a number of parties, both in Federal Aviation Administration reports and in court. For example, the helicopter’s manufacturer, owner, pilot, flight school, and dealer may be held responsible for an accident.

Other parties that may share blame are Air Traffic Control operators, airfield or helicopter pad owners, maintenance workers and/or companies, and owners of land or land or structures that could obstruct the path of a helicopter, such as communications towers, buildings, and vegetation.

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