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How Safe Is Flying in a Helicopter?

By Barbara Peterson

01.30.20

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Helicopters are safer than you might think.

Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Helicopters are safer than you might think.

A recent string of helicopter crashes may have travelers reconsidering taking a scenic helicopter ride.

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After the tragic helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant along with eight others, travelers may be wondering about the safety of civilian choppers, a tourist staple in many destinations around the world.

But should you think twice before booking that “flight-seeing” ride over a waterfall or a copter trip to the airport?

Safety experts say that despite the publicity that such accidents draw, helicopter transportation has a good safety record, better than that of small private planes.

“It’s safe enough so that when one of these events happens, it’s a major story,” says John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about whether the crash was preventable, he added.

The NTSB has sent a team of investigators to the crash site of the helicopter that was carrying Bryant north of Los Angeles. There, they’ll examine the wreckage and look at all aspects of the accident, including whether the helicopter should have even been flying given a dense fog in the area that had grounded other choppers. The helicopter involved, a Sikorsky S-76, is a VIP craft often used for transporting heads of state, and aviation experts report that it has a solid safety record. Investigators are already concerned, however, that the chopper didn’t appear to have a voice or data recorder aboard, which would limit the amount of information available about the crash. 

Efforts to improve safety standards

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While travelers shouldn’t be afraid to fly in a helicopter, according to Goglia, he hastened to add that more can be done to make this sector of the aviation industry safer. The NTSB in recent years has called for greater federal oversight of the helicopter tour industry following a spate of flight-seeing (a term used for sightseeing outings by air) accidents, including a chopper that crashed in New York City in March 2018 killing all five tourists aboard. The company that operated that flight was later cited for unsafe conditions, including a faulty passenger restraint system that prevented those aboard from escaping when the craft plunged into the East River. 

Last month, a helicopter crashed into a mountaintop during a flight over the Hawaiian island of Kauai, killing all seven people onboard. In the case of the Hawaii crash, the itinerary was designed to showcase the dramatic Na Pali coast. The popularity of such flights in places like Hawaii is that they offer a way to experience sights that would otherwise be inaccessible. But rough terrain and changing weather conditions can be challenging; the causes of the December crash are still under investigation.

Because of the risks, some members of Congress have proposed legislation that would require pilots to maintain a minimum altitude of 1,500 feet to avoid mountain peaks that are shrouded in mist. To put that in perspective, Bryant’s flight was at 1,085 feet when it slammed into hilly terrain, and investigators said that the chopper did not have terrain avoidance technology that could have warned the pilot of the danger ahead.

The odds of being in a crash remain low

Statistics show that, percentage wise, the odds of being in a crash are very low. In Kauai alone, tour flights can average as many as 100 a day, which translates into thousands of flights each year. And yet over the past 40 years, there have been just 20 fatal helicopter accidents in all of the Hawaiian islands, according to Hawaii travel site Beat of Hawaii.  

The fatal accident rate (the number of accidents that resulted in one or more fatalities) for all helicopters in the United States was 0.72 per 100,000 flight hours in 2018, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team.

In contrast, the fatal accident rate for general aviation (an industry term for noncommerical or smaller private planes), was 1.029 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in 2018, the most recent year for which NTSB data is available.

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Safety experts say it’s also important to distinguish between private helicopters, such as the one Kobe Bryant was flying in, and ones that operate organized tours. Bryant reportedly frequently used the chartered craft to fly over Los Angeles’s notorious traffic.

Not all are convinced

Infrequent travelers can’t be expected to have an in-depth knowledge of helicopter safety standards, a factor that some consumer advocates have cited in calling for stronger oversight of airborne group tours.

Some operators are taking the initiative to reassure fliers. Take Uber, which recently launched its Uber Copter service from Manhattan to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. In promoting the service, which debuted last summer, the ride hailing service emphasized that the operator it’s contracting with, Newark-based Heli-Flight, meets the highest safety standards, with two pilots manning each flight, which is not a requirement. 

Even so, some local politicians aren’t convinced. Right before Uber Copter’s debut, a helicopter crashed onto the roof of a midtown high-rise in Manhattan; no passengers were aboard, but the pilot died. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio apparently is no fan of the growing passenger chopper services, and he recently called for a full ban on any helicopters flying over city streets. The airport choppers, however, generally take off from helipads on the river away from the city’s tall buildings.

For those who remain nervous about helicopter safety, there are certain indicators you can look for when researching a given helicopter operator. Helicopter companies should be very transparent about their safety standards. For instance, Hawaii-based Blue Hawaiian Helicopters has a “statement of safety” front and center on its homepage touting that the company goes above and beyond even FAA regulations for safety. That’s the kind of statement (with documentation to back it up) that you want to look for.

Also, there are certain questions you should ask the operator, including how long the helicopter you are flying on has been in service and what the safety record is for the aircraft, how much experience the pilot has (pilots should have at least several years of training and flying experience), what accreditations and certifications the company has, and how recent the last safety audit was.

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