Thursday, November 14, 2019
Transport Canada - Aviation Safety Letter Helicopter Safety Helmets—A Hard S(h)ell Issue 2/2010

Helicopter Safety Helmets—A Hard S(h)ell Issue 2/2010

by Rob Freeman, Program Manager, Rotorcraft Standards, Operational Standards, Standards, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

In 1913, two American Army Signal Corps aviators were involved in a crash of their aircraft. It was later determined that the use of a steel helmet prevented one of them from suffering serious injuries. The investigation team recognized the potential of safety helmets for aviators, and ran with it. In fact, a steel helmet was designed for experimental use in aircraft near the end of World War I. From that uncertain genesis, you never see a military helicopter pilot anywhere in the world today without a helmet.

In the intervening years, we have seen many different types of helmets designed, developed, and accepted as an effective preventative measure. The list is long and inclusive of almost all activities where the participant is exposed to head injury—from construction workers and hockey players, to Formula One drivers, and many others. Why? Helmets work. They save heads and, subsequently, lives. And yet, their overall use by commercial and private helicopter pilots in the civilian market is conspicuously low, as verified by surveys and accident statistics. Agreed, there are some pockets of usage and acceptance in Canada—such as for aerial work, and by police and EMS operators, government pilots, heliskiing operators and individual, progressive companies—but for many Canadian operators and their pilots, helmet use is still rare.

As noted above, helmets, and the official recognition of their contribution to aviation safety originally occurred almost 100 years ago. There are light-weight, high-tech helmets specifically developed for helicopter use on the market now, incorporating active noise suppression, superior communications, and other desirable innovations that contribute to physical health and comfort, as well as accident protection. Availability and technology are not the issue. So what gives? Why are so many of our associates still flying around with semi-naked heads? The traditional list of excuses for not wearing helmets includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Peer pressure. You start in a new company and are anxious to fit in, and no one else wears a helmet. I was once asked disdainfully by a group of grizzled veterans when I showed up on the job site with a helmet if I was a rookie or an ex-military pilot. Although no explanation for these two unrelated categories was offered, apparently neither group was desirable in a real man’s operation. Does this sound familiar? How are helmets perceived in your company? Is the safety culture supportive or dismissive?

  • Company pressure. More than one operations or marketing manager has suggested that their pilots not wear helmets, as it frightens the passengers by implying that helicopter flight is a high-risk activity and is therefore bad for business.

  • Comfort, fit, and helmet weight. These complaints often stem from the fact that used helmets were purchased from various sources such as military surplus and were never properly fitted for the current user. Pressure, hot spots, and neck pain resulted. And earlier designs were heavy.

  • Feeling of restriction. Some pilots genuinely suffer claustrophobia when wearing helmets. Luckily, they are few in number, but their dilemma is legitimate. (There are a few newer models of light-weight helmets with less side-panel coverage that might provide a solution for these folks.)

  • Feeling of invincibility. No one takes off in the morning planning to have an accident. If you are involved in the same work, in the same helicopter type for a long period of time, you may develop a sense of complacency and invincibility. One day is pretty much the same as the next. If you are never going to crash, why bother with a helmet?

  • Cost. Depending on the model and installed equipment, a well-equipped helmet can exceed $3000, whereas a good-quality headset, complete with designer sunglasses and a snazzy baseball cap with your favourite team logo is less than a grand. Simply put, what is more important: your head or your “look”?

  • Conventional wisdom states that aerial work and remote operations conducted by single-engined helicopters pose the greatest risks to their pilots for mishaps, and those are the areas where helmets should be employed. Medium and large twins, used more for pure transport, are statistically less likely to end up in an accident. Therefore, helmet usage is a lesser concern for these pilots.

The reality: In the past three years, at least one of each of the latest generation of medium to large twin-engined helicopters, with all the latest technology, has suffered a serious or fatal accident somewhere in the world. Although the traditional wisdom would seem to indicate otherwise, there is no “pass” to helmet usage just because you fly a large twin mostly in cruise flight at altitude. If you lose control of the helicopter for whatever reason, you are subject to the same forces on impact as the pilot in the smallest single. One study conducted by the U.S. Army concluded that head injuries occurred in approximately 70 percent of helicopter accidents. And many of these accidents occur at relatively slow speeds, meaning that they are probably survivable, if the crew is properly protected.

It is the secondary impact that causes head trauma and kills. The primary impact is the airframe striking the terrain or water. The secondary impact results from inertia, causing the crew to strike hard fixed objects within the cockpit. Instantaneous, momentary impact forces can easily exceed 50 g—50 times the force of gravity. Without a helmet, no matter how strong you are, or how you brace yourself you cannot avoid the hard secondary impact with your head. Transport Canada (TC) Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) mandate seat belts and shoulder harnesses to hold you in your seat. This has greatly reduced chest and limb injuries. Unfortunately, without a helmet, your head is left unprotected and flailing about during an accident sequence.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) Aviation Safety Advisory which follows this article advises that you are six times more likely to suffer a fatal injury if you crash without a helmet. A 1998 Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) study on helmet-visor usage further suggests that, in 25 percent of helicopter accidents where a helmet is worn with the visor down, the visor will significantly reduce facial and—of particular importance to pilots—eye injuries resulting from those secondary collisions. Visors aren’t just for bird strikes. In researching this article, I realized that I personally knew several skilled pilots over the years who died in helicopter accidents, primarily due to unprotected head trauma. How about you? Uncomfortable memories too? These statistics aren’t just for others.

U.S. military services train helicopter crew members to use aviation life-support equipment (ALSE) on every flight and include, minimally, a Nomex flight suit, fire-and chemical-resistant gloves, leather boots, and a helmet with visor. The helmet and visor are considered the most critical because numerous studies show that head injuries are the leading cause of death in U.S. Army helicopter accidents. Although an argument might be made that military missions are different from civilian flying, military accidents that do not involve weapons fire are surprisingly similar to those of their civilian brethren in root causes. There are certainly more similarities than differences.

If an accident occurs and you are unconscious or badly injured, you are of no help to your passengers and significantly reduce their chances for survival. Passengers look to their pilot(s) for leadership and direction after a crash, and they are far less likely to do as well without you. After all, you are the activity authority (flight) figure, you have the survival training knowledge, and you are familiar with the emergency gear, the emergency locator transmitter (ELT), and rescue protocols. An unconscious pilot is just one more demanding burden on the survivors, who may have limited abilities or knowledge and are probably dealing with shock, confusion, and trauma themselves. Your need to perform and provide leadership after an accident has occurred should not be underestimated. Your own survival, as well as theirs, could depend on it.

The fact is, all helicopter pilots should be wearing helmets—with visors installed and selected down, whenever possible. The numbers speak for themselves. So what is the answer? How do we get a buy-in and get Canadian heads and helmets together? When motorcycle head injuries spiked some years ago and large numbers of injured riders suddenly needed expensive, continuous, and high-tech medical care, provincial transportation authorities introduced mandatory helmet regulations. The loss of individual freedom of choice was considered less important than the soaring medical costs of treating severe, chronic injuries on a lifetime basis. Remember: unlike other injuries, brain trauma may be irreversible. The injury and its consequences may be with you for the rest of your life, provided that you survive to begin with.

Should TC introduce regulations for mandatory helmet usage? Under the current government’s Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulations, TC may consider regulatory action only when absolutely necessary. Other alternatives must be considered first. In this case, with relatively low numbers of pilots affected, a more consultative approach with industry in accordance with the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council (CARAC) Charter is mandated before any regulatory action can be undertaken. However, when Safety Management Systems (SMS) arrive, individual operators will be required to do operational risk assessments to identify existing hazards and mitigate them. And this is definitely a hazard. In the meantime:

  • Various associations such as the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC), Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), Association québécoise des transporteurs aériens (AQTA), and others such as the insurance industry could act as champions for this safety initiative, particularly if identified as a best practice by the associations’ memberships.

  • Individual operators and their safety managers can encourage or underwrite the time-payment purchase of helmets. In fact, a single paragraph inserted in the company operations manual—mandating the use of helmets by all company pilots—would suffice, provided that the operator were willing to underwrite or otherwise assist in their purchase.

  • Alternatively, each pilot can take responsibility for his or her own well-being. Nothing prevents individuals from purchasing and using helmets themselves, without official action at any level. You might even be able to negotiate a deal if several pilots in the same organization place a bulk order!

This is one proven but overlooked safety innovation that greatly increases accident survivability and resulting quality of life, and it is fully supported by TC. To paraphrase those quirky television credit-card commercials: “What’s on your head?

Source: Flight Safety Foundation, Helicopter Safety, Volume 24, Number 6, November–December 1998.
Article: Helmets with Visors Protect Helicopter Crews, Reduce Injuries
Authors: Clarence E. Rash, Barbara S. Reynolds, Melissa Ledford, Everette McGowin, III, John C. Mora, U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, Fort Rucker, Alabama