Mar 2, 2020

What is the Most Dangerous Form of Helicopter Travel?

With the death of basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people in a Greater Los Angeles helicopter crash in January 2020, the safety of travel by helicopter has been called into question. Mr. Bryant was known to have used helicopters to commute around the traffic-congested Los Angeles area.

Is Personal Helicopter use the Most Dangerous?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration's Rotorcraft Standards Branch, Safety Management Section, the highest percentage of helicopter accidents occurred with those being used for personal or private use. Of the accidents reported from October to December 2019, 35% were for personal or private use.

The second highest area for accidents was for instructional training at 17%, then aerial applications at 13%. Accident for helicopters being used for air ambulances and air tours/sightseeing was at 9%. Business-related external load, law enforcement, and offshore accidents were at 4%.

Due to rounding each industry percentage, the overall total may not equal 100%. The rate of total fatal accidents was also highest for personal or private use in the last quarter of 2019 with 29%. Aerial applications came in at 15%, while offshore accidents, air tour/sightseeing, and business were at 14%. 

How safe is Helicopter Travel?

The short answer is it is much safer to fly in a helicopter than it was just 30 years ago. In recent history, the number of helicopter accidents peaked at 252 in 1982 and has decreased at a nearly steady rate ever since.

After 211 helicopter accidents occurred in 2003, the number of total helicopter accidents has never approached 200. The last time the number of helicopter accidents was more than 150 was 2013 when there were 166. In recent years, the number of helicopter accidents has occurred at a very steady amount.

There were 188 accidents in each of 2015 and 2016, 119 in 2017, 125 in 2018, and 118 in 2019. Similarly, the number of fatal helicopter accidents each year has also declined. In recent history, the number of deadly accidents peaked at 43 in 1985.

Since then, there has been a slow decline in the number if fatal helicopter accidents. In recent years, the number of fatal helicopter accidents has dropped to below an average of about 20 per year.

  • The number of deadly accidents totaled: 20 in 2014, 19 in 2015, 17 in both 2016 and 2017, 23 in 2018, and 24 in 2019.

Despite widespread beliefs that almost all helicopter accidents result in death, the percent of accidents that occur in a fatality has ranged from 13% to 22% since 2011. The lowest rate was 13% in 2011, and the peak was 22% in 2013. 

Like any other aircraft, helicopter passengers should take special safety precautions during the flight. The pilot must conduct pre-take-off and prelanding briefings.

The pilot should tell the passengers: 

  • The proper use and operation of seatbelts for takeoff, during the flight, and landing.
  • For overwater flights, the location and use of flotation gear and other survival equipment.
  • How and when to abandon the helicopter if ditching becomes necessary.
  • For flights over rough or isolated terrain, passengers need to be told the location of maps and survival gear.
  • Passengers need to be told what action and precautions need to be taken in the event of an emergency.
  • They should be told the location of the fire extinguisher, and how to locate and use the Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon.
  • Smoking should not be permitted within 50 feet of a helicopter on the ground. Smoking can be allowed upwind from any possible fuel fumes, at the discretion of the pilot. Smoking should never be allowed during all ground operations, takeoff or landing, and when the craft is carrying flammable or hazardous materials.
  • When passengers are approaching or leaving a helicopter that is sitting on a slope with the rotors turning, they should approach and depart downhill.

No one plans to have an accident, but sometimes great lawyers can help cover your medical expenses upfront assuming you survive. Beware and tread lightly around helicopters.