Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


"Moving Safety Ahead" Heli-Expo 2012, Dallas, Texas
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Heli-Expo 2012, Dallas, Texas

Thank you, Matt (Zuccaro), for that gracious introduction, for inviting me to join you today, and for all that you and HAI do for safety.

Wow! I'm thrilled to be here with all these aircraft, all this advanced technology, but, most importantly, with all of you - dedicated and passionate aviation professionals - who have done so much to raise the bar on helicopter safety.

While this is my first Heli-Expo, I've heard a lot about what to expect from someone who has been attending since 1969, Clint Johnson, one of our Senior Air Safety Investigators. I know, since Clint is so handsome and young looking, you must be thinking that he started coming to Heli-Expo when he was nine. Well, you are right! Clint's family owned Alaska Helicopters, which later became a subsidiary of Columbia Helicopters. An annual trip to Heli-Expo was a family tradition. Clint is still coming to Heli-Expo, now as the NTSB's advisor to the HAI Safety Committee.

If you don't already know Clint, I hope you get a chance to meet him as well as my NTSB colleagues who are here. I would like all of them to stand up and be recognized: Board Member Mark Rosekind; Sandy Rowlett, Deputy Director for Aviation Safety; as well as several of our great investigators who are here with Clint: Dennis Hogensen and Van McKinney. Look for them, as well for Leah Yeager and Carol Horgan at the NTSB booth, right next to the HAI booth.

Here we are at Heli Expo with all the new technology, but something Igor Sikorsky said many years ago still resonates today, "The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind ahead."

While there are some eighteen-thousand people here this week, each one of YOU can be the spark and make the difference to move safety ahead.

And, to all of you who work hard to ensure the safest operations every day, whether it is studying a maintenance manual or your organization's bottom line - I thank you for your work to make the industry safe. I salute you.

I'd like to do two things this morning: recognize what you have accomplished, and challenge you to do even more, if you're going to keep moving safety ahead.

Let me start, by acknowledging your industry's efforts in three areas.

First, there's the brand new HAI accreditation program. Both Matt and Don Spruston of the International Business Aviation Council spoke at our recent Public Aircraft forum about the new helicopter edition of the IS-BAO audit. IS-BAO has been embraced by the international business aviation community. HAI's accreditation program is an important and voluntary step to move safety ahead.

Second, there's the great work HAI has been doing with FAA and the helicopter community on the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST). Importantly, IHST has gathered helicopter accident data, analyzed it, then used it to identify risks and develop targeted interventions.

IHST has set an ambitious goal. It's not a 20 percent reduction. It's not an 80 percent reduction. It is to reduce accident rates to zero.

How do you get to zero?

You roll up your sleeves and get to work. For example, IHST sponsored four sessions yesterday on developing a strong safety culture. IHST has focused on Safety Management Systems, since their data analysis team found that the lack of an SMS is a major safety risk.

That's what we have found again and again in our accident investigations. This is where so many operators have problems and where they could make improvements.

The lack of an SMS is a major problem area across ALL modes of transportation. This is why SMS is one of the ten areas on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

An operator with an effective SMS incorporates risk management principles, such as providing clear guidance to pilots regarding go/no-go decisions, about weather minimums, crew-rest, landing-zone requirements, and more. It's about providing specifics to perform risk assessments and make good decisions.

Does your organization have an SMS?

If you don't have one, take advantage of IHST's SMS toolkit to develop your own.

Here's a third area where HAI has really stepped up to move safety ahead: actively participating in our November forum on public aircraft operations. Four months ahead we reached out to Matt and his team. And, HAI was supportive from the beginning. Matt provided a pre-briefing to our Board members and staff as well as participated on the closing panel.

At the forum, we heard directly from operators, like HAI Chairman Mark Gibson and Brian Beattie, who chairs HAI's government-contracting committee. Both provided excellent insight about how their companies interact with government-contracting agencies and the FAA.

HAI's participation contributed greatly to the quality of the discussions. Perhaps more importantly, Matt and the HAI team immediately volunteered to follow up on the safety issues raised at the forum - notably oversight and surveillance - by bringing all the stakeholders together in a working group.

HAI's new public aircraft working group has its first meeting tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 - right here in this room. To all of you participating, I thank you for moving safety ahead.

I've talked about three things that HAI is doing to move safety ahead, but there is still more to do. Last year, we saw 131 helicopter accidents in the United States, including 17 fatal accidents with 31 fatalities. And, I know that you realize full well that these are more than numbers.

I appreciated Matt's recent President's message on safety where he recognized that there is far more to an accident than mangled metal and damaged equipment. Lives are lost and other lives are forever changed.

As Matt wrote, "A fatal accident always involves at least one life that ended unexpectedly and far too soon. The worst part is that, in almost all cases, this was preventable."

Yes. Matt was absolutely right.

Accidents are preventable. That's why the NTSB exists and that's why we are here at Heli-Expo - to share what we've learned in accident investigations to prevent future tragedies.

So, let me lay out three things that we've identified in our investigations that can move safety ahead. One, I have already mentioned, safety management systems; the other two are safety culture and recorders.

A recent investigation of a public aircraft search and rescue accident highlighted the risks inherent in operations with a strong mission-completion mindset. It also reinforced the importance of having a robust SMS, as well as a strong safety culture that supports the individuals charged with doing the work and making the decisions.

A strong safety culture isn't a safety slogan, it takes sustained effort. It takes commitment. More than that, management must embrace safety and make it an integral part of the company's mission. You can have an SMS program. You can have a safety manager. You can have a safety stand down and safety awards. You can also have brand-new aircraft and expensive electronic gizmos, but safety is not just about the financial investment or the procedures.

Moving safety ahead requires an all-out top-down commitment to building, maintaining, and always - always - strengthening your company's safety culture.

Yet, safety culture is elusive. What does a good safety culture look like? There's one clear attribute - an organization with a safety culture is never satisfied. It knows there are always ways to improve.

Here's another lesson we learned about safety. You're all familiar with the August 2010 crash of a de Havilland Otter in Alaska that took the life of former Senator Ted Stevens and four others.

They were flying a pre-planned flight route when the airplane began a shallow left turn, veered off course, and collided with rising terrain. The plane was equipped with the latest technology, including TAWS and a moving-map display, and was flown by an experienced pilot who was familiar with the area.

What this airplane did not have was an onboard recorder, which would have helped determine the specific sequence of events that led to the accident. After an exhaustive investigation, with minimal data to draw on, our team was left with many unanswered questions about the last crucial moments of that fateful flight.

Currently, we're in the middle of two major helicopter air tour accident investigations. Ten people dead. If they had installed low-cost, lightweight recorders - such as those produced by Appareo Systems - on their helicopters, investigators and operators would have a much better chance of understanding the accident sequence.

Don't wait for a mandate.

Further, recorder technology isn't just about accident investigation. These new recorders - they are not your grandfather's or your father's recorders. They are integral to a mature data-driven SMS programs. You need feedback to have the continuous safety loop of an SMS. Recorders are much more cost effective than in the past and can bring additional benefits for training, as well as oversight of your operations.

The technology is available. What is needed is the will.

Over the years, recorders have made major contributions to safety - and they have the potential to move safety further ahead. This is why recorders, along with professionalism, are on our Most Wanted List.

The truth is, if we don't learn what happened, how can we prevent it from happening again?

I applaud American Eurocopter for its leadership and for its commitment to equip all of its new A-Stars with onboard image recorders. I understand other models will follow when certification requirements are complete.

This is the kind of industry leadership that will move safety ahead.

I started with a quote from Igor Sikorsky about the work of the individual moving mankind ahead.

In closing, let me quote Col. Sally Murphy, the first female Army helicopter pilot, who is featured in an HAI video on women in the industry.

Col. Murphy spoke about professionalism. She says professionalism is "getting up every morning and going to work and doing the best you can."

And, you know what, she's right. It's very simple. Whether you are a CEO or whether you are a scheduler, a mechanic or a meteorologist, professionalism is about doing the best you can every day.

This is how we are going to move safety ahead: one person at a time, one day at a time, one flight at a time.

You, too, can be like Igor Sikorsky. You can be the spark that moves mankind safely ahead.