16 Sep 2016

Helicopter operators admit cutting corners

9:44 am on 16 September 2016

An independent review of a regulation governing operators of small commercial aircraft has found that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) could improve how it oversees the sector.

The rule aims to ensure operators comply with specific safety standards.

Helicopter generic

Some helicopter operators in New Zealand are said to have been cutting corners. Photo: 123RF

The report, commissioned by the CAA, showed that in eight years there had been 170 accidents in New Zealand involving helicopters and small planes.

Of that number, 102 involved helicopters, in which 11 people were killed, while six were killed in light plane crashes.

A separate poll, run in conjunction with the report, showed some operators, particularly in the helicopter sector, had been cutting corners.

Almost half of 600 respondents, mainly pilots, said they took shortcuts, while only 11 percent said they would never cut corners.

The poll also showed more than 50 percent of helicopter operators were prepared to push their craft beyond their performance limitations.

CAA deputy director of general aviation Steve Moore said the review identified a number of areas which increased risks for operators.

"Things like commercial pressures, training - the role of the regulator. We'll pick the important ones with the industry and work on them to make sure the sector stays safe. I'm not saying it's unsafe, we'd just like it to be safer," Mr Moore said.

The managing director of Nelson-based global helicopter firm HNZ New Zealand, Denis Laird, said the accident rate was unacceptable.

Mr Laird said it was linked to entrenched thinking that dated back years.

"It's an unacceptable rate and there's no excuse for it. There's a lot of cultural, historical issues that exist in New Zealand's helicopter industry that are causal in this," Mr Laird said.

Mr Laird said centralisation of CAA services had not helped, meaning there were now fewer people on the ground around the country checking.

He said the authority struggled to keep up with operators who were not complying with the rules, which, according to anecdote, happened all the time.

He added that the industry was diverse, and New Zealand was hampered by regions that were difficult to cover.

"We've got the Department of Conservation which is a big user and [CAA] issue a lot of permits to operate in the parks, and they tend to have a very hands-off approach to that."

"Accidents are happening and yet the concessions aren't reviewed. It's completely unacceptable," Mr Laird said.

Young pilots not fully prepared for NZ conditions

The report said that, along with the shortage of experienced pilots, the sector was seeing an increasing number of young pilots.

It noted there was a shared view that their basic skills - gained from certificate training - did not fully prepare them for New Zealand's challenging regional conditions.

Mr Moore said the review was a tool used to improve the system, and while they had started to address the problems, it would take years.

"And it's not just CAA action. We work with the operators to improve their safety standards. One of the initiatives, we've decided to focus on the helicopter sector."

Mr Moore said it boiled down to CAA knowing it could lift its game in overseeing the sector because at the end of the day it was about ensuring public safety.

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