Friday, October 20, 2017
Transport Canada - Aviation Safety Letter Low Usage of Head Protection by Helicopter Pilots

Low Usage of Head Protection by Helicopter Pilots

The following is an Aviation Safety Advisory from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

On March 12, 2009, a Sikorsky S-92A helicopter with 16 passengers and 2 flight crew on board was en route from St. John’s, N.L., to the Hibernia oil production platform when, 20 min after departure from St. John’s, the flight crew noticed an indication of low oil pressure to the main gearbox. The crew declared an emergency and diverted the flight back to St. John’s. Approximately 30 NM from St. John’s, the helicopter impacted the water and sank in 178 m of water. There was one survivor and 17 fatalities. Although not fatally injured during the impact sequence, both pilots received severe injuries due in part to striking their heads/faces against the instrument panel. Neither pilot on the occurrence flight was wearing head protection.1 The TSB investigation into this occurrence (A09A0016) is ongoing.

While the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) do not require that helicopter pilots wear head protection, approximately 10 percent of the operator’s pilots were routinely wearing head protection at the time of the occurrence. Whether or not this percentage represents an industry-wide norm for head protection usage is unknown. However, the majority of pilots surveyed during the A09A0016 investigation cited discomfort as the reason they did not wear head protection. In addition, very few pilots had fully considered that partial incapacitation due to a head or face injury could compromise their ability to help their passengers after an accident. On May 8, 2009, the operator implemented a cost-sharing program aimed at increasing the use of head protection. Management agreed to cover a portion of the cost for any pilot wishing to purchase a prescribed make and model of head protection. The operator stated that approximately 50 percent of its pilots have participated thus far, and it anticipates 75 percent participation.

According to U.S. military research2, the risk of fatal head injuries can be as high as six times greater for helicopter occupants not wearing head protection. In addition, the second most frequently injured body region in survivable crashes is the head.3 The effects of non-fatal head injuries range from momentary confusion and inability to concentrate, to a full loss of consciousness4; these outcomes can effectively incapacitate pilots. Incapacitation can compromise a pilot’s ability to quickly escape from a helicopter and assist passengers in an emergency evacuation.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has acknowledged that the use of head protection can reduce the risk of injury and death. A review of 59 emergency medical services accidents that occurred between May 11, 1978, and December 3, 1986, was completed in 1988. This review resulted in recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (# A-88-009) and to the American Society of Hospital-Based Emergency Aeromedical Services (# A-88-014) to require and encourage, respectively, that crew members and medical personnel wear protective helmets to reduce the risk of injury and death.

Transport Canada (TC) also acknowledged the safety benefits of head protection use in its 1998 Safety of Air Taxi Operations Task Force (SATOPS) report5, in which it committed to implementing the following recommendation:

  • That TC continue to promote in the Aviation Safety Vortex newsletter the safety benefits of helicopter pilots wearing helmets, especially in aerial work operations, and promote flight training units (FTU) to encourage student pilots to wear helmets.

In addition, SATOPS directed the following recommendation to air operators:

  • That helicopter air operators, especially aerial work operators, encourage their pilots to wear helmets, that commercial helicopter pilots wear helmets, and that FTU encourage student helicopter pilots to wear helmets.

Image of helmet with impact marks
This helmet was retrieved from an AS350 accident in Atlantic
Region (TSB File A07A0007). The other pilot was not
wearing his helmet and suffered serious head injuries.

The TSB has documented a number of occurrences where the use of head protection likely would have reduced or prevented the injuries sustained by the pilot. Similarly, the TSB has documented occurrences in which the use of head protection reduced or prevented injuries sustained by the pilot. Despite the well-documented safety benefits of head protection, the majority of helicopter pilots continue to fly without it. Likewise, most Canadian helicopter operators do not actively promote head protection use amongst their pilots. The low frequency of head protection use within the helicopter industry is perplexing, given the nature of helicopter flying and the known benefits of head protection.

As shown in this occurrence, without ongoing and accurate communication of the benefits of head protection usage, helicopter pilots will continue to operate without head protection, thereby increasing the risk of head injury to the pilot and consequent inability to provide necessary assistance to crew or passengers. Therefore, TC and the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) may wish to consider creating an advocacy program designed to substantially increase head protection use amongst helicopter pilots. Such a program could include, but is not limited to, initiatives that: ensure that helicopterpilot training curricula highlight head protection use, promote the advantages of cost-sharing programs between operators and pilots, and encourage informed debate by publishing articles that promote head protection use in publications such as the TC Aviation Safety Letter (ASL) and HAC newsletters.

Decorative line

1 TSB defines head protection as the use of an approved helmet, complete with visor.

2 Crowley, J.S. (1991) “Should Helicopter Frequent Flyers Wear Head Protection? A Study of Helmet Effectiveness.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 33(7), 766-769.

3 Shanahan, D., Shanahan, M. (1989) “Injury in U.S. Army Helicopter Crashes October 1979–September 1985.” The Journal of Trauma, 29(4), 415-423.

4 Retrieved on 31 August 2009 from www.braininjury.com/injured.html.

5 Transport Canada publication, TP 13158.

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