Safety Woes: The looming threats in Australia’s rotorcraft industry

Apr 3rd, 2013

For an industry that has long defined the lifeblood for many sectors of the Australian economy, it perhaps comes as no surprise that helicopter numbers in the country have almost doubled in little over a decade. Contiguous to this growth has been the passing of new regulations aimed at broadening the focus of rotorcraft safety, which itself has been the subject of concern for a number of years. However, with March’s fatal crash of a Robinson R44 helicopter south of Sydney, efforts to suitably address the disproportionate share of helicopter accidents looks beset with further difficulty.

While rotorcraft safety is underpinned by the same trends that affect fixed-wing aircraft, the industry retains its own unique line of problems. With regards to the current ATSB publication, Aviation Occurrence Statistics: 2002 to 2011, it is clear that helicopters account for a sizable share of fatal accidents, despite constituting a mere 13 percent of listings on the CASA Aircraft Register. Moreover, even though there are many operational perils distinct to helicopter service in the country – it is the matter of component replacement in certain cases that has drawn cause for concern.

Zilvinas Sadauskas, CEO of the online aviation spare parts marketplace Locatory.com states that, ‘All things considered, Australia has long held a reputation for its exceptional standards in air safety. As part of this accolade, the country is recognised for its ongoing efforts to address outlying risks in all sectors of aviation. So given the circumstances of the recent helicopter tragedy, it beggars belief to some degree.’

‘All things considered, Australia has long held a reputation for its exceptional standards in air safety

‘Precisely, it came to light that the Robinson R44 which crashed at the end of March was fitted with aluminium fuel tanks, increasing the likelihood of an uncontained fire following a low-impact strike. Indeed, this case proved no exception. Given a number of similar incidents involving the R44 – including two in Australia in 2011 and 2012, the issue was not an isolated phenomenon. In fact, the manufacturer had issued a service bulletin recommending the tank’s replacement with bladder-type alternatives back in 2010, so it raises the question why this wasn’t heeded sooner?’

Helicopter numbers have risen dramatically in Australia from 1,034 in 2002 to just over 2,020 at the current time, placing the country 6th among global rankings. Not only is it the fastest-growing sector in Australian aviation, but there is a rising demand for heavier and more complex rotorcraft types. Current forecasts suggest the number could exceed 3,000 over the next five years, with a greater portion being twin-engine models holding larger size payloads. Driving this growth has been the accelerating regional demand for the country’s mineral and energy reserves, as well as that for conventional uses in general transportation, mustering livestock and emergency medical service.

Perhaps befitting to their use in non-standard operations – and oftentimes perilous situations – rotorcraft have the dubious distinction of making up 36 percent of all GA accidents over the past ten years. In addition, their accidents rates routinely exceed that of fixed-wing aircraft in Australia, amounting to as much as 2.5 times in certain cases (flight training). Addressing this disparity mandates an open and productive working relationship between CASA and helicopter operators, particularly in regards to the service life of specific parts and components.

A common misconception associated with the ongoing growth of the rotorcraft industry in Australia is that the average fleet age is relatively young

A common misconception associated with the ongoing growth of the rotorcraft industry in Australia is that the average fleet age is relatively young. By contrast however, approximately 39 percent of the country’s registered helicopters are in excess of 20 years of age. In regards to the matter, Z. Sadauskas points out, ‘As with any aging part – fatigue issues play a major factor. The pivotal difference with a helicopter however is that there is often little recourse in the event of a major structural failure. Cases of rotor blade and gearbox fatigue involving Bell and Robinson helicopters have affected not only the Australian market, with more than a small handful resulting in catastrophic accidents.’

Adding further, he says, ‘Rather poignantly, the problem is compounded by the under-reporting of actual hours flown for certain components. To date, three incidents of main rotor failure on Robinson R22 helicopters have taken place in Australia whereby under-reporting was a key influential factor. Such occurrences fly in the face – no pun intended – of efforts to abate needless mechanical failures driving up the statistics.’

Leaving a final word on the matter, Z. Sadauskas suggests, ‘Although a prudent approach to monitoring service bulletins and the life limits of individual parts goes a long way in reducing overall hazards, there is always the threat of being left in the hands of unscrupulous suppliers. It is not unheard of for devious aftermarket vendors to push on improperly certified parts taken from old helicopters. Operators therefore need to be vigilant in where they source their helicopter spares.’

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