Clear the Punch List

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A call for USHST action to collaborate with industry to address and close open NTSB recommendations.

When a fatal aviation accident occurs, the tragedy takes a terrible toll on more lives than one can imagine. Not only are the lives of the victims lost, but the collateral damage heaped on hundreds of family members, friends, coworkers, and industry stakeholders is similarly devastating. Meanwhile, the in-depth and arduous efforts of the NTSB, FAA, involved parties, and other global aviation accident investigators have just begun. Their work comprises thousands of hours of investigating, interviewing, researching, and documenting the fruits of their efforts in a preliminary and final report. A report focused on telling us what happened, why, and how we can prevent it from happening again. The prevention component may include targeted recommendations emphasizing more urgent or critical actions that should take place to avoid a repeat event or address other deficiencies discovered during the investigation.

When referring his agency’s work, NTSB Member Michael Graham states, “When a tragic accident occurs, the NTSB not only determines what happened, but also issues safety recommendations to both industry stakeholders and regulators. We strongly believe that if these recommendations are implemented, similar accidents will not occur.” Member Graham continues, “It’s the collective responsibility of the industry to learn the safety lessons from these tragedies and to proactively ensure the highest degree of safety necessary to protect their people, customers, and operation.”

As of this writing, 64 NTSB rotorcraft accident investigation recommendations linked to 12 accidents remain open, the oldest dating back to 2004. Given the number of open recommendations, one might wonder if the work of our accident investigators is getting the attention it deserves. While it is impossible to appreciate all of the factors preventing the closure of open recommendations, including much of the background work well underway, I submit that the USHST can join with other industry stakeholders and do more to help.

Are some NTSB recommendations considered by some to be too onerous, costly, or disruptive to our aviation industry? Yes. To acknowledge a stark reality, not every recommendation is viable in our perpetually resource-constrained world, but we must collaborate more with critical stakeholders to achieve transparent and defensible solutions when possible. While the FAA is the recurring target of many open recommendations, the decisions and resources required for resolution may reside well beyond the direct control of the FAA.

I applaud the dedicated public servants and countless other contributors participating in each accident investigation. Active USHST members from the NTSB, FAA, and helicopter OEMs are subjected to a dizzying and perpetually cycle of response to fatal and often preventable rotorcraft accidents. They go into each event with clear-eyed objectives – find out why, then tell us how to prevent that accident from happening again. But once the “why” is discovered, are we too often content to move on and return to business as usual? Isn’t the second part, the recommendations, that could stop a repeat event potentially far more important?

Our inability to promptly address open recommendations, particularly those linked to fatal accident precursors, is a regrettable flaw in our bureaucratic system. Others may point fingers and judge this backlog of unfinished business more harshly. However, a culture of blame is unproductive and does nothing to address the underlying issue.

Perhaps it’s oversimplifying, but I suggest a renewed focus. We should manage our open NTSB recommendations like a critical punch list that the USHST and key stakeholders help each other to clear.   

“We must openly collaborate to achieve a final disposition for open NTSB recommendations,” says Vertical Aviation International (VAI) President and CEO James Viola. He continues, “While every recommendation may not be 100% feasible as presently written, we can do more to indicate what is indeed possible and secure the critical resources needed to make it happen.”

How can the USHST help?

Admittedly, the USHST is limited in its ability to formally close open NTSB recommendations. However, the team can contribute through outreach campaigns promoting awareness, advocacy, and action.  Here are just a few examples for consideration.

  • Awareness: Tracking down and summarizing all open NTSB recommendations is no small task. Dedicated data scientists can do so in short order, but the average aviation enthusiast would spend too much time trying to make sense of all the data sources and coming up with a succinct and meaningful way to present the information and compel closure action. USHST volunteers, however, could help develop, host, and maintain a live dashboard that summarizes all open recommendations linked to rotorcraft accident investigations. The dashboard could serve as a transparent reminder of open recommendations and also detail the dedicated work that is being performed in the background toward closure.
  • Advocacy: USHST volunteers routinely serve as speakers, panelists, advisors, or other influential roles at industry events. Each presents an opportunity to advocate for resources or decisions that can contribute to the resolution of many open recommendations.
  • Action: When opportunities for USHST members to take meaningful action to help close open recommendations, the team can and should act to do so. Such action may be as simple as penning an article or white paper. Other actions may involve participation on a rulemaking committee or working group tasked to help close an open action. Team members can offer a voice of reason or help craft compromises toward the attainment of viable elements in a thorny or stalled closure action. 

In the pursuit of enhancing aviation safety, Chris Baur, the Industry Co-Chair of the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) and President & CEO of Hughes Aerospace, emphasizes the necessity of a multi-faceted approach to accident prevention. “there is more to preventing accidents than simply telling pilots not to have them,” Baur asserts. “We need to delve deeper into the complexities of accident prevention and equip our pilots, dispatchers, and crew with the right tools for informed decision-making.”

One example of an open NTSB recommendation is a groundbreaking tool – the FAA’s Weather Camera Network. Its impact is both profound and quantifiable, particularly in Alaska, where the introduction of weather cameras has led to a staggering reduction of over 80% in fatal accidents. “The results speak for themselves,” Baur remarks. “This is not just a step forward in safety—it’s a leap. An 80% reduction in fatal accidents is a clear testament to the significant return on investment that these weather cameras represent.”

In light of this success, Baur and the USHST are advocating for the FAA to significantly increase its investment in the Weather Camera Program. “To truly nationalize the benefits seen in Alaska, we need a comprehensive network of weather cameras across the United States,” he states. The current FAA plan to allocate a mere 160 cameras over the coming years falls short of this goal.

Leading an innovative technological endeavor to enhance access and utility of the cameras, Hughes Aerospace has launched The Hughes App. This cutting-edge application integrates data seamlessly from the FAA Weather Cameras and is provided without charge to active members of the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), setting a new standard in the aviation industry. “Our objective is to make crucial weather information, along with other essential safety tools, effortlessly accessible to those at the forefront of aviation safety,” Chris Baur elucidates. “The Hughes App represents a crucial advancement in our pursuit of this objective, enabling improved decision-making and, most critically, aiding in the effort to save lives. “Through initiatives like these, Baur and the USHST are following the NTSB’s recommendation and leading the charge in transforming aviation safety, demonstrating that with the right tools and sufficient investment, significant advancements in accident prevention are not only possible but within reach.

VAI’s (at the time HAIs) past President and CEO, the late Matt Zaccaro, gave me one core message: Be a bulldog. Don’t be shy about taking on the most challenging tasks if they can move the safety needle in the right direction. Advocating for more transparency, meaningful action, and appropriate resolution of the backlog of open recommendations is a righteous endeavor. I pledge my support and look forward to joining with my USHST colleagues and other dedicated stakeholders to develop viable solutions to help make this happen.

Who’s with us?  

To review valuable information based on several rotorcraft accident investigations, findings and recommendations, check out the FAA Lessons Learned Library Dashboard

Chris Hill
Senior Director of Safety
Vertical Aviation International