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2009 Helicopter Accident Study and Analysis

In 2009, there were a total of 136 helicopter accidents, involving 300 individuals, resulting in 37 fatalities, and 38 serious injuries. The scope of operations was broad, but as always, the frequency of accidents was predominate within certain operations and certain aircraft makes and models which would seem to indicate those areas of operation and/or aircraft as higher risk.

In the chart below, 2009 helicopter accidents are broken down by number of accidents each month and the number of persons-on-board/fatalities/serious injuries. I did not include data on minor injuries.

Jan

Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
9 10 16 10 8 12 16 10 16 13 12 3
23/10/4 25/1/2 40/1/6 27/0/0 15/0/2 18/1/3 34/6/2 27/9/7 33/6/4 26/3/2 20/0/4 12/0/2

In the tables below, MD LT = all MD/Hughes light turbine helicopters as they are all used in similar operations.

Top Four Accident Aircraft Makes and Models (in order from left to right)

Robinson R22 Robinson R44 MD LT Eurocopter AS 350

Top Four Accident Operations (in order from left to right)

Training Personal Medical Public Use

Top Four Accident Types (in order from left to right)

Loss of Control Autorotation Wire Strike Dynamic Rollover

The above consists of three separate tables, factual, but not absolutely relative to each other. Training and personal accidents are relatively cut and dried although some accidents classified as personal could be training related such as solo flight. With regard to medical accidents, the NTSB only classifies an accident as medical if there was actually a patient on board the aircraft. For the purpose of this analysis, all accidents involving a helicopter in the business of medical transport has been classified as medical since that is the primary use and all phases of flight are relative regardless if it was a fueling leg, return to base, or en route to pick-up a patient. Public use involves police, TSA, border patrol, and numerous other government related activities, but not military use.

The table below shows which operations had the most accidents (left column) in order from top to bottom, and with the most frequent model of helicopters involved in order from left to right.

Most Frequent Accident Operation / Accident Aircraft Model / Number of Occurrences
Operation Aircraft Models Involved / Number
Training R22/17 269/4 R44/3
Personal R44/12 R22/9 269/4
Medical AS350/6 B206L/3 A109/2
Public Use MD LT*/5 AS350/2

 *MD LT includes all MD/Hughes light turbine helicopters as they are all used in similar operations. Models involved are in the order of frequency. There were also three other aircraft models involved in Public Service accidents, one each in a Robinson R44, Bell 407, and Bell 212. 

Training accidents will always be among the riskiest environments, and one with the a high number of accidents, it is simply the nature of the beast. You have the least experienced flight instructors teaching new students, and the lowest time pilots, in the riskiest of maneuvers. Although most instructors are responsible and try to pass on a quality product, there are a small percentage who become overconfident, careless and bored, and don't really care what they pass on.

Personal flights are risky for reasons similar to flight training; these are often low time pilots building time, and often carrying friends or family. Sometimes they want to show off their skills, and may succumb to the temptation of sporty low altitude flying which is very high risk. This activity results in accidents plain and simple. In this study, there was one accident where a power loss occurred at 300 feet above trees, you know that is going to be ugly. In yet another accident, the pilot who was flying along at 500 feet decides to descend into a valley and experiences a wire strike. He lived to make the report which is an unusual case with wire strikes as they are almost always fatal.

Air Medical: The NTSB conducted a special investigation into EMS aviation accidents in the United States in 2008. The NTSB special report on EMS accidents, commentary and summary can be accessed via this link, or the link at the top left of this page.

Public Use: This is another area of aviation which the NTSB did a special investigation into public use aircraft accidents, which I will also post with commentary and summary via this link. Overall, the public use aircraft accident rate is significantly higher than it is in general aviation.

 

Most Frequent Accident Type / Accident Aircraft Model / Number of Occurrences
Type Aircraft Models Involved / Number
Loss of Control R44/10 R22/8 AS350/4
Autorotation R22/12 MD LT*/3 AS350/3
Wire Strike R44/3 R22/2 MD LT*/2
Dynamic Rollover R22/3 B206B/2

*MD LT includes all MD/Hughes light turbine helicopters as they are all used in similar operations. Models involved are in the order of frequency. There were also three other dynamic rollover accidents, one each in a Hughes/Schweitzer 269, Bell 206L, and Sikorsky S76.

Loss of Control Accidents:

The above table shows some interesting things. For example, the apparent high number of loss of control accidents in the R44 shows that there are a number of inexperienced pilots flying them. This is understandable since the R44 is the most popular helicopter in its class and has been for a number of years. People can afford to buy them, and it is easy to make them generate enough money to pay for themselves with just a little ambition.

The R22 is the most popular training helicopter in the world, and it has been for many years. The high number of LOC accidents in the R22 are indicative of inexperienced pilots and flight instructors as well.

There is really no justification for the number of accidents in the AS350, two of which were NVG training accidents. These accidents simply should not have occurred.

Autorotation Accidents:

In the R22, these accidents are to be expected as autorotation practice is one of the riskiest maneuvers taught in helicopter training. In the training environment, it is often low time instructors, some who are overconfident, teaching maneuvers that they have barely conquered themselves.

The number of autorotation accidents in the MD LT*, and AS350 demonstrates simply that autorotations can be challenging even for pilots who have gained significant experience, and even in helicopters supposedly much more capable than the R22. When consideration is given to the number of autorotations accomplished in the R22 on a daily basis, verses the other aircraft indicated above, you might be surprised to learn that the number of autorotations in the R22 far exceed those in the other aircraft. The number of fatalities in the R22 are however higher, which when all factors are considered, is to be expected.

Wire Strike Accidents:

Wire strike accidents are always avoidable period and therefore deserve special attention. Robinson published several warnings in an attempt to reduce this type of accidents. With half of the wire strikes in 2009 occurring in Robinsons, pilots with minimal experience need to take heed. Wire strikes nearly always end in death of all on board, and always occur with low altitude flight. Often, the pilot was aware that the wires were there, or in the vicinity and somehow managed to get into them despite the fact that their existence was known.

Dynamic Rollover:

Dynamic rollover accidents are another preventable accident which are the result of improper control inputs. While sitting in on an interview with a pilot involved in a dynamic rollover accident several years ago, I learned that more than 90 percent of dynamic rollover accidents occur on flat ground where the pilot simply did the wrong thing.

Most accidents of this type occur with low time pilots, but some occur in larger helicopters being flown by pilots who should have known to avoid the situation that led to the accident.

The table below shows the number and percentage of accidents, fatalities, and serious injuries with regard to the type of operation.

 
Type #/% Accidents #/% Fatalities #/% Serious Inj.
Training 34/25 4/10.8 5/13
Personal 33/24.2 4/10.8 10/26.3
Medical 13/09 3/08 4/10.5
Public Use 10/07 1/02 5/13
 

Accidents with the most fatalities: Although the above data shows the most frequent accidents, uses, and aircraft, the worst accident involving 9 fatalities accounting for 23.4 percent of the total number of fatalities, occurred in a mid air collision between a Eurocopter AS350 touring in New York and a Piper Cherokee Six airplane.

There were two mid-air accidents involving helicopters, the other was between a Robinson R22 and an airplane both of which departed at the same time, the helicopter was close to the left side of the runway as the airplane drifted slightly to the left. No fatalities resulted, the helicopter was destroyed and the airplane was damaged but was able to return to land.

The second worst accident in number of fatalities occurred offshore in a Sikorsky S76 involved in a bird strike which killed 8 people and accounted for 21.6 percent of the total number of fatalities.

Although bird strikes are common in helicopters, many go unreported; despite the frequency of the strikes, and those which actually come through the windshields, operators continue to use thin, lightweight windshields. This practice will likely never change, or if it does, it will take a large number of fatalities. In the case of the S76 accident mentioned above, the operator had replaced the windshields with the thin, lightweight windshields as is standard practice industry wide.

Training Accidents: While training accidents account for the most accidents overall, accidents while practicing autorotations was the highest accident type with 21 occurring either during training, or while practicing.

Engine Failures: There was a relatively high number of engine failures (6), and/or power losses (7). With regard to the engine failures, 5 were turbines while 1 was in a piston engine (R44). Of the power losses, 5 were turbines, and 2 were piston engines. Five of the turbine engine problems occurred in MD LT helicopters with 3 failures and 2 loss of power accidents. 

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Last modified: 03/14/2014