COMMENTARY: When money comes before aviation safety
By Jyri Raivio
The painstaking investigation of accidents and near-miss situations is one of the staunchest pillars of aviation safety. When something untoward happens, matters are examined from top to bottom. And if in the course of the investigations something is turned up that poses a threat to safety, the commission of inquiry will report it to the aviation authorities, who will take the necessary measures.
This is what should also have happened in the case of the accident involving a Copterlines Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, which went down in the Gulf of Finland in August 2005, with the loss of all fourteen passengers and crew on board.
In short order, the accident investigation panel found and reported - publicly - the probable cause for the crash, namely a blockage of hydraulic ports leading to the catastrophic failure of the primary rotor servo, which made it impossible to steer or control the aircraft.
Initially the system functioned as it is supposed to. The commission of inquiry has among its members a representative of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB], as the helicopter was American-built. At the urgent recommendation of the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, the ultimate U.S. authority that determines the airworthiness certification of helicopters, suggested already in the fall of 2005 that there should be a change in regulations to shorten the periods between servo inspections.
For American users of the S-76 model, this amendment would have meant an extra bill of nearly EUR 4 million.
The manufacturer vehemently opposed the proposed amendment. One salient reason for the company's opposition was that it is very difficult for the manufacturer to admit the role of the main rotor servo in causing the accident.
Thus far Sikorsky is already facing two court actions in which nearly EUR 100 million is being sought from them in damages, specifically on the basis of the alleged faulty servo.
In the background to all this are far larger sums, however. Similar servos are used in thousands of helicopters. Additional difficulties in the operation of these aircraft would bring problems for offshore oil exploration and production, for instance, and also for the United States' military operations in Iraq.
The FAA's proposed amendment was left on the table. The matter has not been returned to even after the NTSB's most recent servo tests confirmed - according to the commission of inquiry's vice-chairman - that the investigators' initial picture of the cause of the accident was correct.
Sikorsky, who has insisted on the innocence of the servo in the crash, has itself recommended that operators increase the frequency of inspections for servo leakage.
The final report on the Copterline crash has been promised for April this year.
A good many other things will be put under the magnifying glass in the report, including the actions of the helicopter operator Copterline, but the commission's view of the main rotor servo as a primary cause is unlikely to be reversed.
The system has not operated in the way it should, because there are considerable economic factors in play.
This is not the first time such an outcome has occurred.
In the 1990s, a problem was discovered in the rudder trim of the world's most popular medium-range passenger jet, the Boeing 737. Two fatal accidents - leading to the deaths of over 150 people - and a number of close calls were attributed to a rudder reversal issue. Here, too, a servo was at the heart of the problem.
The grounding of the entire 737 fleet, running to thousands and thousands of planes (more than 5,000 737s have been built since 1968), while waiting for Boeing to come up with a solution to the problem would have been too expensive. The repairs were staggered over a period of years.
On the other hand, it has not always been thus. In May 1979, American Airlines Flight 191 lost its number one wing engine during takeoff from O'Hare International in Chicago, apparently as a result of a maintenance procedure fault.
The stricken plane plunged to earth just beyond the runway with the loss of all 271 on board and two persons on the ground.
The FAA quickly ordered all DC-10s to be grounded until the issues with maintenance and design specifications were resolved.
In the aviation branch, there are honest and sincere efforts to ensure that safety is paramount, and the results have been positive.
In the final analysis, however, it is money that matters, even in aviation safety.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.3.2007
Previously in HS International Edition:
Sikorsky rejects claims of technical cause for Copterline crash (3.1.2007)
Copterline seeks massive damages in US court from Sikorsky (2.1.2007)
Technical fault discovered in crashed Copterline helicopter (21.10.2005)
Fourteen passengers and crew dead after helicopter crashes in the sea off Estonian coast (11.8.2005)
Fatal August 2005 Copterline S-76C+ crash controversy deepens as Sikorsky rejects NTSB verdict of main rotor servo failure (Flight International)
10 August 2005 helicopter crash near Tallinn (Wikipedia)
JYRI RAIVIO / Helsingin Sanomat