Hello everyone.

The following is an interview I conducted with a former member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) who has recently retired from a position as a government auditor with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) of Australia.  With the growth of helicopter usage in the Australian mining sector, I asked Rob about his thoughts on instrument flight rules (IFR) in modern helicopters and the future of IFR in Australia.

What are the impacts of a strong Aussie dollar on the helicopter industry?

Well, the strong Aussie dollar, while not great for our exporters (let alone the poor Americans!), is great news for the Australian helicopter industry. It means those in the market may be more inclined to purchase a new helicopter sooner, rather than later. This also means that organisations looking for larger aircraft are in an excellent position to negotiate the best possible deal. The result of course, is a lot more IFR capable, twin-engine helicopters finding their way to Australia. These types of helicopters however, mean a greater need for IFR qualified pilots and in many cases with twin-engine machines, two IFR qualified pilots! This can be both good and bad for young pilots.

Are suppliers meeting the global demand for new helicopters?

Helicopter manufacturers all seem to agree, there is a massive global demand for new helicopters and this means greater pressure on the suppliers to meet those demands. So, why is there a rapid and steady growth in helicopters? Well, despite the impacts of the global financial crisis, there has been a huge growth in the energy industry as the search for new mineral resources increases and energy deposits become more remote. Energy companies are putting greater resources into exploration and as we all know, this is best suited to a rotary aircraft. Despite the problems faced by other sectors around the world, the helicopter industry is actually growing!

Change is coming. Should we embrace it?

There is no doubt that the industry as we know it is changing. Sure, in the near future, you may very well be able to continue with your current qualifications and remain employable, but beyond that in the not too distant future, the industry is in for some change and unless you adapt now, you just may find yourself superseded.  As new, more modern, IFR capable helicopters reach Australia, the result will be a shortage of night and IFR qualified pilots to fly them (keeping in mind as was mentioned earlier, many of the twin-engine helicopters will actually need two qualified IFR pilots). This means Australian companies will be forced to recruit foreign pilots (and aircrews) with the necessary qualifications.  Aussie instructors are in short supply and well-qualified, experienced New Zealand instructors now actually outnumber our local instructors. This shortage of local skills is most likely due, in part at least, to foreign opportunities to fly large aircraft and to draw considerably higher wages and benefits in the Middle East. As with most industries facing a similar exodus of talent, CASA and the government seem unwilling to address the problem. This could be due to the fact they are both busy with airline training projects from Asia. The helicopter industry, by comparison, does not have the necessary resources to develop IFR training facilities needed in the short term.

With all indications the Australian mining economy will continue to improve, what affect does that have on the local helicopter industry?

Despite the global financial crisis, Australia’s mining economy is in quite healthy shape.  Industry is strong and there is such a high demand for skilled workers we actually now have a shortage in most industries. Inflation is under control and we have the lowest unemployment in forty years. So, how does this affect Australia’s rotary community?

The helicopter industry is usually quite susceptible to the health of the economy and when recessions hit, for example, we are usually the first to feel the effects and due to the nature of our business, we usually take the longest to recover.

Since the last recession (thank you Mr Keating!), the rotary community in Australia has had several decades of steady economic growth (about 2 to 3%). The result of course, is that we have an excellent base from which to build Australia’s helicopter industry even further, which is currently experiencing rapid growth at almost twice that of the economy itself. Government figures suggest that helicopter numbers have doubled in the last ten years and will double again in the next seven! That growth of course, is in heavier, IFR aircraft and there will be an even greater demand for qualified pilots to fly them.

What do the numbers mean for us?

There are currently over 1,930 helicopters in Australia with 203 of them (10%) twin-engine machines. By comparison, seven years ago there were only 1,420 helicopters locally with only 135 of those (9%), with twin-engines. Helicopter registrations over the past decade have averaged at around two new helicopters per week. The key here is the increase in twin-engine, IFR capable machines, with an increase of 50%, which is in direct contrast to the aeroplane general aviation register (GAR), where the number of light twins has actually decreased. Even the Australian Defence Force (ADF) admits civilian organisations will soon operate more twin-engine aircraft than the military, a fact that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.

What has the past taught us?

History has taught us that almost half a century ago, the Australian aviation industry consisted of a collection of small airlines and rural charter companies that generally operated under visual flight rules (VFR). Navigation aids were not common back then and the aircraft were not usually configured for any real IFR work.  Things started to change when a large number of IFR capable, heavy twin-engine aircraft began finding their way to Australia and suddenly it became clear there was a shortage in IFR qualified aeroplane pilots to fly them and those that could, lacked overall experience. The statistics for that period indicate a sharp increase in accidents, a number of which were fatal, and aviation regulators were at a loss as to explain it all.

As is often the case with history, the pattern began to repeat itself with rotary operations within the last decade. The American experience highlighted that an increase in IFR and night training (even in VFR helicopters) could correct the dreadful Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) accident rate.

The lesson of course is in training. Pilots need the right training in the right conditions to effectively qualify as IFR pilots and to gain the necessary experience and confidence.

What can we apply lessons learnt from the past?

So, how do we take these lessons and apply them today? There are different standards around the world for gaining a commercial licence. In Australia, for example, students only need to clock 105 hours as opposed to the 150 hours required by our aeroplane counterparts, who include both night and IFR training as standard. New Zealand on the other hand, requires 150 hours but no night flying and an American commercial pilot’s licence requires 150 hours with some night flying. The Europeans have a much tougher standard with a higher focus on conditions where visual meteorological conditions (VMC) may not exist. Therefore, you can see there is a little consistency in gaining a commercial helicopter licence globally and overall, there is little emphasis on IFR.

Here in Australia, mustering operations account for over 40% of flying hours with many of those hours flown by Robinson R22 and R44 aircraft, both of which generally lack night or IFR instrumentation, as they are not required for mustering. Without the operational need for it, local pilots rarely seek out the additional training needed for night and IFR qualifications.

With night and IFR training absent from Australian courses, many pilots lack the marginal VMC skills to differentiate between VMC and Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The consequences for pilots (not to mention their passengers) who lack these skills can be fatal. In Australia, the past losses of R22 and other helicopters at night support this theory.

What does the increase in HEMS operational fatalities tell us?

In the recent past, both here in Australia and internationally, there has been a number of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) accidents occurring at night. In America, for example, there was a period where they were experiencing weekly HEMS accidents at night. With the advantage of hindsight, these statistics were no surprise. This was mainly due to the rapid expansion of the HEMS industry operating night capable machines, often in marginal night VFR conditions. How did this happen? Well, some pilots, rated only for night flying tried to bend the rules to fly IFR under ‘Mercy Flight’ rules. Again, we come back to a lack of training in IFR flight and the pressures on the industry to find qualified pilots. This still leaves us with our current problem. Where do we find IFR rated pilots, how do we train them and how do we supervise them on the job?

Does the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) back this up?

Well, yes it does! The ATSB often produce reports on HEMS operations in America and Australia. The subjects of these reports usually involve pilot/weather-related decision-making and VFR-rated pilots transitioning from VMC to IMC flight. The reports highlight incidents where an experienced non-IFR pilot attempted to fly in IMC conditions and occasionally made an unauthorised instrument approach.

What do the EMS statistics tell us about the need IFR rating and night flying skills?

American statistics show that 48% of all HEMS helicopter and 68% of all other fatal flying accidents occurred at night. They also tell us that 17% of accidents occurred in IMC and of these, 77% were fatal. All but one accident occurred during single pilot operations. Despite the fact that flying at night more than tripled the risk of fatalities in HEMS helicopter accidents, and flying in bad weather increased the risks by eight, we still fail to address this need when training rotary pilots! These statistics indicate that one HEMS helicopter in America is at risk of an accident over a 15 year period of service. Not great odds.

One of these reports examined many issues including:

  • The pilot’s decision-making
  • Their overall experience
  • Their background and operational issues within the company.

The report highlighted weather as a major factor in aviation accidents and the greatest cause for concern in aviation safety. It also highlighted that the transition from VFR flight into IMC conditions represented the greatest threat to flight safety.

In addition, operators and indeed, customers, should consider the risks involved in night VFR operations and if it is appropriate to use helicopters that are not configured for IFR flight as well as non-instrument rated pilots. If they do consider it appropriate, then it is up to the operator to have robust procedures and training in place to address the risks. This may include the use of Night Vision Devices, though pilots need to be aware of their limitations and need the proper training, procedures to follow and close monitoring of their use.

How do we move forward?

The industry should encourage new pilots to gain their IREX qualification and maybe a night rating as early in their career as possible. While there are many organisations that provide IREX training, our industry is poorly equipped to provide the appropriate night training pilots need. As well as these issues, there is a shortfall of local helicopter schools equipped to train pilots in IFR, and the cost of flight training remains a major obstacle for some pilots.

In light of the safety issues I have highlighted in this article, perhaps it is time for the government to introduce some form of assistance or student loan so pilots can gain the skills necessary to ensure the safety of our pilots and customers and that Australian pilots are available to meet the impending arrival of new, IFR cable helicopters?

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