Global Aviation Airworthiness Communication is not as well connected as it might be

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The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, in the below article, calls on the FAA and EASA to mandate a safety modification based on the Bureau’s investigation of Robinson Helicopter Company R44 helicopter (R44) crash near Bulli Tops, New South Wales. The article headlines the message which it sent to the two national agencies and that transmission demonstrates that while aviation is a globally interconnected industry, the links between safety organizations are not absolute.

The ATSB found that

“The impact sequence resulted in a substantial fuel leak that was followed by an intense fire. This accident was similar to two other relatively recent fatal accidents in Australia involving R44s fitted with all-aluminium [sic] fuel tanks in which there was a fatal post-impact fire (PIF) following an otherwise survivable impact. Statistical analysis of helicopter accidents that occurred in Australia and the United States (US) between 1993 and 2013 identified a significantly higher proportion of PIF involving R44s than for other similar helicopter types. That analysis also identified that, despite the introduction of requirements for newly certificated helicopters to have an improved crash-resistant fuel system (CRFS) some 20 years previously, several helicopter types were still being manufactured without a CRFS and that many of the existing civil helicopter fleet were [sic] similarly not fitted with a CRFS.”

[Australian English ≠ American English in spelling and collective nouns.]

Later, in the same document, the Bureau recommended to CASA (the Australian equivalent of the FAA) that all helicopters be required to remove any all metal fuel tanks and replace them with the CRFS tanks. CASA’s order stated that all owners must “increase compliance with the helicopter manufacturer’s Service Bulletin 78B (SB-78B), requiring the fitment of bladder-type fuel tanks and other fuel system improvements.” Such a sequence of bureau recommendation and regulatory action assures that helicopter flights within Australia will be safer soon.

Now the issue moves to the international context and the ATSB made the following strong statement:

“The ATSB has issued a safety recommendation to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that they take action to ensure all R44 operators and owners comply with the manufacturer’s Service Bulletin SB-78B and fit bladder-type tanks to improve resistance to post-impact fuel leaks. In addition, the ATSB also recommend that the FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency take action to increase the number of existing and newly-manufactured helicopters that are fitted with a crash-resistant fuel system.”

The expectations are that under the Chicago Convention, the two foreign certificating authorities must reply to ATSB in 90 days with their “proposed responses.” Treaties are treaties and these agreements will never concede that one sovereign must, without review, adopt the recommendations of a competent aviation safety authority.

EASA and the FAA will explain what they may or may not do and possibly why. In similar situations the FAA, for example, does not immediately adopt what the NTSB recommends; so there may be valid reasons for the safety standard writer to choose not to follow what the accident investigator thinks is the fix. This cross-border link between aviation safety experts is not hard wired.

One iteration away from the ATSB-EASA/FAA communications is the transmission to the least ten countries in which the R44s fly. Once these aircraft are registered in these other places, the on-going airworthiness is the responsibility of their respective CAAs. If EASA and/or FAA issues an Airworthiness Directive or mandates a Service Bulletin, these third country CAAs may or may not require the operators of these helicopters to install the CRFS. Many, if not most, will take the same position as the CAA which issued the Type Certificate in recognition of the other sovereign’s expertise based on their initial certification.

There likely will never be blank checks in which the recommendations of Country A will be automatically accepted by Country B. However, ICAO may want to create a central function which serves as a clearing house for such information. Better international connections made add to global aviation safety enhancement.

ARTICLE: ATSB calls for FAA and EASA to act on Heli Safety

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