NTSB Asks Helicopter OEMs to Install Data Recorders

The Board says the FAA has failed to adequately address the problem.

Sikorsky
The NTSB has asked manufacturers like Sikorsky to make video and audio data recorders standard equipment on all new helicopters.Courtesy Lockheed Martin

The National Transportation Safety Board has asked helicopter manufacturers Bell, Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo Helicopter Division, MD Helicopters, Robinson Helicopter Company and Sikorsky to require visual and audio data recorders on commercial turbine-powered helicopters. Speaking directly to airframe manufacturers is a first for the NTSB regarding video image recorders and comes following the FAA’s refusal to address portions of similar Board requests for the devices. Dana Schulze, director of the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety, said, “We are asking that currently available recording technology be put to use in a way that will improve aviation safety.”

The Board said in a news release, “These recommendations are derived from several NTSB investigations of turbine-powered helicopter accidents in which the lack of a crash-resistant or crash-protected flight recording system that records parametric data, cockpit audio, and images hindered our understanding of the accident circumstances and, thus, allowed potential safety issues to go unaddressed.”

The Board originally proposed the installation of data recorders in May 2013 and again in January 2015 and added, “Helicopters meeting specific criteria established by the FAA are required to have crash-resistant systems to record flight data and cockpit audio. None are currently required to have image recording capability. Despite the lack of action from the FAA, some helicopter operators have equipped their aircraft with recording systems, including image recording capability, even though they are not required to do so.” In addition to asking manufacturers to install crash-resistant recorders on newly built helicopters, the NTSB also asked them to provide a means to retrofit their helicopters with crash-resistant systems capable of recording flight data, cockpit audio and images on their helicopters not already so equipped.

The NTSB cited seven helicopter investigations between 2011 and 2017 in which the lack of access to recorded data impeded their ability to identify and address potential safety issues. They also identified five accidents in which investigators had the benefit of recorded data that was critical to understanding the circumstances of the crashes. The findings and analysis of these investigations resulted in three NTSB urgent recommendations and led the FAA to issue an emergency airworthiness directive affecting an entire fleet of helicopters. Two recent stories, one following the Kobe Bryant accident and the second after the report of an air ambulance crash in Ohio illustrate the NTSB’s concerns.

In a strongly-worded additional comment, the NTSB said, “Although the FAA declined to mandate recorders on those helicopters not already required to have them, they said they encouraged operators since 2005 to install the equipment on a voluntary basis. The NTSB, however, said since 86 percent of the 185 turbine-powered helicopter accidents it investigated between 2005 and 2017 had no recording equipment installed, the FAA actions were ineffective.”