• AHIA president Ray Cronin speaks at RotorTech 2022. (Steve Hitchen)
    AHIA president Ray Cronin speaks at RotorTech 2022. (Steve Hitchen)

Australian Helicopter Industry Association (AHIA) president Ray Cronin has laid responsibility for the helicopter industry's flagging safety record squarely at the feet of pilots.

Already this year there have been eight helicopter crashes leading to nine deaths, including five people killed in one accident near Mount Disappointment in Victoria in March.

Speaking at the RotorTech conference last week, Cronin said the problem could be traced back to the airmanship of the pilots involved and a tendency to depart from established procedures.

"It really comes back to decision-making," he said. "If you look at all the individual accidents and think 'why did that one happen? Why did that one happen?', it really comes back to poor decision-making by the individual, not necessarily the company.

"So that's an area we really need to focus on, and it's been around since Noah built the Ark, so it's not new, but it's not getting through. And if you look at the age demographic of the accidents, it's not just the youth."

Cronin, winner of the 2018 Col Pay Award and owner of Kestrel Aviation, said that too many pilots were ignoring safety regulations and adopting their own practices, often leading to breaches of safety.

"History has shown that regulations are written in blood. Humans aren't good at being pro-active; we're very, very good at being reactive, so the guidance set that we provide to pilots seems to be accepted only as a need to pass an examination to get the licence and then go out and practice.

"So once you've got the licence you throw that over the shoulder and say 'now I'll use my own ruleset ... and I can do anything I want.' There's no boundaries; there's no triggers. There seems to be no vital, mental triggers that say 'no, I'm doing the wrong thing here.'"

Cronin pointed out that helicopters operate in a very dynamic environment, but if pilots adhered to the Pilots Operating Handbook, company Operations Manuals and other documented procedures, there is really no reason for a flight not to be completed safety.

He also noted that catastrophic component failure leading to an accident is "so low you can't really count it".

"The point I'm trying to get across here is that a helicopter is a very innocent device sitting on the ground all tied up," he said. "But if we put in the next element, the human factor, we now have a hazard or in the worst case, a lethal weapon.

"We need to get inside the heads of the people that operate the aircraft and make sure they respect guidelines."

Cronin singled out several common themes in helicopter crashes including flying after dark without qualifications or adequate instruments, fuel exhaustion, controlled flight into terrain and leaving helicopters running unattended.

According to Cronin, the safety record is starting to give the industry a black mark in the eyes of the public.

"We're effecting the public confidence in using helicopters, and this is in any sector: tourism, EMS, offshore," Cronin said. "People won't want to get on helicopters to go to work; they won't want to be rescued – they'll ask if there's another way to get off the cliff.

"It's a real problem and if we don't curb it, we start to restrict the industry, and the industry's already in enough trouble."

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