Article

Night-time offshore helicopter operations: A survey of risk levels per phase of flight, flying recency requirement and visual approach technique

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Abstract

The analysis of risks per phases of flight is fundamental for safe helicopter operations, of which night-time offshore oil- and gas-related missions form an important part. The safe execution of such missions also depends on pilots' recent flying practice and a stable visual approach segment prior to landing. However, the poor quality of the safety data currently available prevents accurate analysis of risk on a per-phase-of-flight basis, establishment of a meaningful flying recency requirement and identification of any preferable visual approach design. To redress these problems, this paper develops a bespoke taxonomy of phases of offshore helicopter flights and uses it as the basis for a questionnaire survey on the phase-specific risk levels experienced by pilots in the night-time, perceived optimal flying recency requirement and preferred visual approach design. With the responses obtained from pilots located in seven countries, extensive statistical hypothesis testing shows that the phases involving visual scan techniques at high speed regimes are problematic, especially the visual segment of instrument approaches. Moreover, the between-night-flights time gaps required for assured flying recency were found considerably shorter than currently standardised across the industry. Finally, no preferred visual approach technique was identified. A number of important implications have been highlighted and should form the basis for future safety interventions.

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The PSS 2005 gave HEMS pilots an opportunity to candidly voice their views and concerns about flight safety. Their overwhelming response has provided the air ambulance industry with valuable insights from the people who deal with air medical safety issues on a daily basis. We know from the survey data that HEMS pilots are a highly experienced group. They are straightforward about accepting responsibility for aircraft accidents, citing poor pilot decisions as the primary cause of HEMS accidents. They also understand that the industry needs to provide better training to assist pilots in making good decisions, along with the equipment to back it up. Pilots are convinced simulators and NVGs will greatly enhance safety, along with other improvements in technology. In other words, pilots understand the need to make good decisions, but has the industry given pilots the tools and support they need? Pilots also want to know that management will back up their no-go decision, without regard to financial or competitive pressures. They know that even good decisions to fly can sometimes be overridden by weather conditions or inadequate weather reporting. When things do go wrong, pilots want the tools and the training to bring the aircraft and their crew home safely. The pilots have spoken. The question is, will the HEMS industry commit the resources necessary to supply the IFR training, NVGs, and other equipment that line pilots believe so strongly are needed to reduce accidents?
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