Member Homendy’s Safety Compass on helicopters and CVR/FDR
Cites extensive past Recommendations, MWL and S. Colbert
Appears to have ignored OST, OMB and Benefit/Cost
Feinstein & Shepard Bill
People of a certain age might remember the remarkably informative “I’m just a Bill”. Though the Schoolhouse Rock singing lecture is very thorough, it misses some of the more complicated, sophisticated aspects of government actions. Surprisingly, there are those in Washington that may not comprehend some of the hidden yet controlling parts of the labyrinth which a well-articulated policy initiative must navigate to become effective.
NTSB Member Homendy establishes a thorough basis for requiring installation of CVR/FDRs unit on all helicopters. She cites five separate accident investigations, 10 years of the issue being listed on its annual Most Wanted Lists and most convincingly the expert opinion of Stephen Colbert. The object of her Safety Compass recommendation is for the FAA to adopt this requirement.
The FAA is not an independent agency. It is subservient to the DOT and OMB. Before a new rule can be considered (an Notice of Proposed Rulemaking), the Administrator must take the proposed text plus the lengthy section showing compliance with OMB and Congressional mandates. The CVR/FDR helicopter requirement has been considered since 1999; so, OMBs under several Presidents have not looked favorably on this safety measure.
Below, the FAA states flatly that it is not moving on these past recommendations based on the Benefit-Cost requirements. Later, the terms of OMB Advisory Circular A-64 define the methodology for its review of an NPRM’s economic impact. The Homendy admonition was not well directed.
Senator Feinstein and Representative Sherman have moved the issue of added safety measures for helicopters with more than six passengers from a Congressional request or an NTSB recommendation to, if enacted, a statutory mandate. If it becomes more than just a bill and is signed by the President, the FAA will have 180 days to issue a final rule and then the operators will have a year in which to install the equipment.
Crash-protected flight recording systems, such as cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) and flight data recorders (FDRs), often called “black boxes,” are required on most commercial aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). CVRs record sounds like engine noises and pilots’ voices in aircraft cockpits. FDRs record important data on a plane’s operating condition during flight, like altitude and airspeed. Both are installed in a part of the aircraft most likely to “survive” a crash—usually the tail. These instruments have proven invaluable to determining the causes of a crash and preventing similar accidents from occurring; yet, the FAA doesn’t require them on most helicopters.
Nearly 4 months ago, a helicopter carrying nine people collided with a mountainside in Calabasas, California, tragically killing all on board. As the Board member on duty, I launched to Calabasas with a team of NTSB investigators just a few hours after learning of the crash. In the days following the accident, our team of investigators thoroughly examined the details surrounding the collision and I relayed our initial findings to the public.
At our final press conference, I highlighted a 2006 safety recommendation issued to the FAA that the agency had refused to implement: require all transport-category rotorcraft operating under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 (requirements for general aviation operations in the United States) and Part 135 (requirements for operating charter and on-demand flights) to be equipped with a CVR and an FDR. The transport-category helicopter in the Calabasas crash was operating under Part 135, but was not equipped with either a CVR or an FDR.
CALABASAS, California — In this photo taken Jan. 27, NTSB investigator Carol Horgan examines wreckage as part of the NTSB’s investigation of the crash of a Sikorsky S76B helicopter near Calabasas, California, Jan. 26. The eight passengers and pilot aboard the helicopter were fatally injured and the helicopter was destroyed. (NTSB photo by James Anderson)
Although it’s too soon in the ongoing Calabasas helicopter investigation to know how the lack of recorders will affect our investigative work, the NTSB has long seen the value of using flight recorders to conduct comprehensive accident investigations, including those involving helicopters.
At the time of the Calabasas accident, The Late Show host Stephen Colbert spoke about how a CVR was instrumental in determining what caused Eastern Air Lines flight 212 to crash in 1974, killing 72 people on board—including his father and two brothers. Colbert appealed to the FAA to require that helicopters be equipped with black boxes so we can learn more about what occurred in a crash and prevent the next one from happening.
Unfortunately, the absence of a CVR and an FDR in the Calabasas crash was not unique.
In fact, the NTSB has investigated several helicopter crashes and issued recommendations to address the lack of crash-resistant flight recording technology onboard helicopters as far back as 1999 (A‑99‑60). We followed up with comparable recommendations in 2003 (A-03-62 to -65) and 2009 (A-09-9 to -11), and recently released a safety recommendation report detailing several helicopter crashes in which recorded flight data would’ve helped us better identify potential safety issues.
On May 19, the Board adopted a report on the January 29, 2019, crash of an air ambulance near Zaleski, Ohio. The investigation found that if cockpit image data had been captured, investigators would have been able to better understand why the pilot failed to maintain altitude in the final moments of the air ambulance’s flight. We reiterated two previous recommendations (A-13-12 and -13) that the FAA require crash-resistant flight recorder systems on new and existing aircraft operating under Parts 91, 121 (domestic operating requirements), and 135. As we learned at the Board meeting, these crash-resistant devices are available on the market today.
We also reiterated a recommendation (A-16-35) that the FAA require all Part 135 operators to create flight data monitoring (FDM) programs “to identify deviations from established norms and procedures and other potential safety issues.” In the Zaleski investigation, although the helicopter was equipped with FDM devices, the data was not used to verify and improve safety.
Expanding the use of recorders has been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List (MWL) going back to 2011. The MWLs in 2014 and 2015 both specifically called for crash-resistant flight recorder systems to be adopted to enhance helicopter safety. Our most current MWL, which spans 2019 and 2020, calls on regulators to “require all Part 135 operators to install data recording devices” to meet the same safety requirements as commercial airlines.
The NTSB’s history of recommendations on flight recording systems has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers. Following a June 2019 helicopter crash in Manhattan that killed the pilot and started a fire on top of a Midtown skyscraper, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged the FAA to require FDRs in helicopters, just as they are required for commercial planes. In their press release, Senator Schumer stated “to know that the NTSB has been trying for years, without success, to compel the FAA to take action as it relates to making helicopters more valuable to safety by installing flight data recorders is cause for serious concern.” He went on to say that the FAA “must take another look” at the NTSB’s recommendations on FDRs.
To date, the FAA has not acted on our repeated recommendations regarding crash‑resistant and crash-protected flight recording systems for helicopters. Although the FAA encourages helicopter operators to voluntarily use crash-resistant flight recording systems, the agency stops short of mandating CVRs and FDRs. This is especially disappointing because, although flight recording systems are undoubtedly crucial to improving aviation safety, they serve another important function: they provide grieving families with answers.
The benefits of crash-resistant flight recording systems well outweigh their cost; it’s beyond time for the FAA to take action on our safety recommendations regarding them.
For Immediate Release
March 16, 2020
Contact: Marcia Alexander-Adams or Eva Ngai
Phone: (202) 267-3488 or (202) 267-8001
Recommendation A-13-12: Require the installation of a crash-resistant flight recorder system on all newly manufactured turbine-powered, non-experimental, non-restricted-category aircraft that are not equipped with a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder and are operating under 14 CFR Parts 91, 121, or 135. The crash-resistant flight recorder system should record cockpit audio and images with a view of the cockpit environment to include as much of the outside view as possible, and parametric data per aircraft and system installation, all as specified in Technical Standard Order C197, “Information Collection and Monitoring Systems.”
Recommendation A-13-13: Require all existing turbine-powered, non-experimental, non-restricted-category aircraft that are not equipped with a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder and are operating under 14 CFR Parts 91, 121, or 135 to be retrofitted with a crash-resistant flight recorder system. The crash-resistant flight recorder system should record cockpit audio and images with a view of the cockpit environment to include as much of the outside view as possible, and parametric data per aircraft and system installation, all as specified in Technical Standard Order C197, “Information Collection and Monitoring Systems.”
FAA Action: The FAA is not considering rulemaking at this time for these recommendations. The FAA will examine possible ways of polling operators through our aviation safety inspectors to identify voluntary flight data monitoring (FDM) system equipage rates.
Recommendation A-15-7: Require that all existing aircraft operated under Title 14 CFR Part 121 or 135 and currently required to have a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder be retrofitted with a crash-protected cockpit image recording system compliant with Technical Standard Order TSO-C176a, “Cockpit Image Recorder Equipment,” TSO-C176a or equivalent. The cockpit image recorder should be equipped with an independent power source consistent with that required for cockpit voice recorders in 14 CFR section 25.1457.
(Transmittal Memo No. 64)
October 29, 1992
MEMORANDUM FOR HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND ESTABLISHMENTS
SUBJECT: Guidelines and Discount Rates for Benefit-Cost Analysis of Federal Programs
Jun 11 2020
Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein, Representative Brad Sherman (both D-Calif.), Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) today introduced the Helicopter Safety Act, a bill to require terrain awareness and warning systems and crash-resistant flight data and voice recorders on all helicopters that carry six or more passengers.
Since 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board has issued and re-issued recommendations urging this safety equipment be mandatory on helicopters. Yet, the FAA only requires certain helicopters, such as air ambulances, to carry it.
“Despite NTSB recommendations 15 years ago that the FAA make terrain awareness equipment and other safety technology mandatory on all helicopters, some of this lifesaving equipment is only required to be installed in air ambulances. That’s simply unacceptable,” Senator Feinstein said. “We saw the deadly results of this inaction in January when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others crashed. If that helicopter had terrain awareness equipment, the tragedy may have been averted. This commonsense bill will save lives, and Congress should act to pass it immediately.”
“In 2004, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended to the FAA that all helicopters be equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System. Unfortunately, the FAA refused to follow this recommendation to require the safety system” said Congressman Sherman. “The Helicopter Safety Act of 2020 will finally direct the FAA to require these safety features for passenger helicopters in order to avoid tragedies like the one that claimed the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others.”
“Despite tragic helicopter crashes across the country and here in New York—from FlyNYON to the crash last year on a Manhattan tower—the installation of chopper warning systems and crash-resistant flight data and voice recorders has remained an elusive, basic safety standard the federal government has failed to mandate. The bill we are introducing today would heed safety recommendations the NTSB has all but begged for and ones New Yorkers know are badly needed,” said Minority Leader Schumer.
“The death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others was devastating news for Los Angeles and the entire country. It is critical that helicopters be required to have terrain awareness equipment and warning systems in place. I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing this legislation to prevent accidents like this from occurring again,” said Senator Harris.
Senator Feinstein introduced the bill in the Senate and Representative Sherman introduced a companion in the House. Full text of the bill is available here. (quotes from the draft bill)
SEC. 3. IMPLEMENTATION OF NTSB RECOMMENDATIONS.
- IN GENERAL.—Subject to subsections (b) and (c), not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall issue such regulations as are necessary to implement the following NTSB recommendations for crash-resistant systems…
(b) TIMING FOR EQUIPMENT COMPLIANCE.—The regulations required to be issued under subsection (a) shall require all U.S.-registered turbine-powered rotorcraft 8 certificated for 6 or more passenger seats to be equipped with a Flight Data Recorder, a Cockpit Voice Recorder, and a Terrain Awareness and Warning System that each meet the respective requirements applicable under such 12 regulations, not later than—
(1) 1 year after the date on which the applicable regulation is issued; …
Congress will debate this bill and given the high profile of the crash, which was the inspiration for the legislation, might pass. No doubt that more aviation safety data will benefit helicopter operations. Hopefully, the added equipment expenses will not reduce future sales.
 As with many Congressional deadlines, 180 days and a year are not practical limits.
 We’ve Entered the Sixth Stage of Grief Over Kobe Bryant’s Death: Legislation– So far, the NTSB has declined to say whether TAWS would have prevented Sunday’s crash. Lead investigator Bill English told Fox News that it’s not clear if “TAWS and this scenario are related to each other.”…One former NTSB air crash investigator, Gregory Feith, told The New York Times that TAWS might have been useful in avoiding Sunday’s crash, but that the system could also have produced a lot of false warnings a pilot may have ignored…”With what the pilot was doing with Kobe Bryant, it would be beneficial, but when you’re following a highway with hills nearby, you get false warnings. And with false warnings, you tend to tune them out,” Feith said…Helicopter pilot Brian Alexander similarly told Fox News that if the crash were the result of deteriorating weather conditions and the pilot’s own disorientation, having TAWS installed wouldn’t have helped much…At a minimum, lawmakers should wait to learn whether TAWS would have prevented Sunday’s crash before they use said crash to justify mandating the technology.
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