The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is calling on helicopter manufacturers directly to equip their turbine-powered helicopters with crash-resistant data-recording systems, explaining that the lack of such systems hinders crash investigations and prevents life-saving improvements from being made.
The NTSB directed its safety recommendation to Airbus Helicopters, Bell, Leonardo, MD Helicopters, Robinson and Sikorsky, urging the manufacturers to implement systems to record flight data, audio, and images because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has refused to mandate the recommendations in the past.
According to the NTSB, the lack of crash-resistant recording systems on helicopters has “hindered their understanding of several crashes that could have serious flight implications.”
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that makes recommendations for safety improvements based on its investigations of transportation-related accidents, but it lacks the regulatory and legislative authority to enforce safety improvements.
The FAA does require certain helicopters to be equipped with flight data and cockpit audio recorders, but it does not require any helicopters to have image recording capabilities. Some helicopter operators have equipped their aircraft with image recording capabilities, but they are not required to do so by law.
“The more information we have, the better we can understand not only the circumstances of a crash, but what can be done to prevent future accidents,” said Dana Schulze, Director of the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety, in a statement. “We are asking that currently available recording technology be put to use in a way that will improve aviation safety.”
The NTSB cited seven helicopter crash investigations between 2011 and 2017 in which the lack of recorded data impeded their ability to identify and address potential safety issues.
It also identified five accidents in which investigators had the benefit of recorded data that was critical to understanding the circumstances of the crashes. The results of these successful investigations resulted in three urgent NTSB recommendations and led the FAA to issue an emergency airworthiness directive affecting an entire fleet of helicopters.
The NTSB said that while the FAA has refused to adopt its recorder recommendations, the agency has encouraged manufacturers to install the equipment voluntarily.
Making the recorders optional, however, has done little to improve helicopter safety. Of the 185 turbine-powered helicopter accidents the NTSB investigated between 2005 and 2017, 86% of the aircraft had no recording equipment installed.
In addition to asking manufacturers to install crash-resistant recorders on newly built helicopters, the NTSB also asked them to develop ways to retrofit existing helicopters with the crash-resistant systems.
“The data these recorders can provide to investigators are data that can prevent accidents by allowing us to address safety issues that might otherwise go unidentified,” Mr. Schulze said.
Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.