The announcement last month that the Civil Aviation Authorities in Norway and the UK plan to lift their restrictions on the Super Puma aircraft has been met with an unsurprising and completely understandable outpouring of emotion, outrage and opinion.
While the lifting of the suspension came as a surprise to many of us, it did come in the end, after all the airworthiness requirements, which the CAAs believe are necessary and met by Airbus. We must remember that Airbus’ original airworthiness safety case was approved by European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in October 2016 and therefore this shouldn’t have really come as a surprise at all.
The national aviation authorities have informed us that they lifted the restriction because the safety case has been further improved and lessons have been identified as part of the ongoing Accident Investigation Board Norway (AIBN) investigation, which has been reinforced with yet more EASA Airworthiness Directives.
Based on the hierarchy of controls, as most of us understand them (and subject to any further findings by the AIBN), this safety case is based on a substitution of a key part of the gearbox, the bearing in the epicyclic module and addressing fatigue failure. These are engineering controls that in theory enhance spalling detection, identifying any failure early and increasing reliability and administrative controls through a significant reduction in the life limit of this type of part (from 4,000 to 1,000 flight hours). This, we are led to believe, mitigates the risk to such a level that from an airworthiness perspective there are no more hurdles that must be overcome from a regulatory perspective.
Of course this will not result in an immediate return to passenger flights. There is much to do if anyone chooses to fly these aircraft, but battle lines are being drawn and positions are being stated. Ignore the work required to restore confidence in the aircraft at your peril.
No-one I speak to is under any illusion regarding the strength of feeling coming from those that, let’s be completely honest here, will most probably be asked to travel in these aircraft again.
That being said I think it’s different this time. The repetitive nature of the events from 2009, 2012 and most recently 2016 combined with the almost cynically repetitive rhetoric that lessons have been learned and it ‘won’t’ or ‘can’t’ happen again has left a sour taste in the mouths of many of us and for some eroded trust in the system to keep them safe to an all-time low.
We must be mindful that the majority of helicopter passengers have no real choice other than to fly in the aircraft selected by the duty holder. Moreover, the passenger has no control and an immeasurably small role to play in ensuring flight safety. It comes down to nothing more than wearing the correct PPE, a survival suit, a lifejacket, an emergency breathing system and watching the safety video.
All of which are only relevant in the event of everything else in the safety system going terribly wrong.
Thirty people have lost their lives in two accidents within a relatively short period due to the disintegration of two epicyclic modules in the main gear boxes. Before these events, airworthiness had been demonstrated. Post event we are assured that airworthiness has been restored to acceptable levels.
How can a passenger have confidence in a system that has failed to achieve the certification standards? More importantly, from the workforces’ perspective there is still the remaining question in respect of root cause still to be answered.
For me, this issue will not be solved by working in isolation nor will it be solved by a few engagement stunts, or through the usual well meaning “your safety is our priority” press release.
It requires all of those within the system to step up, understand their responsibility and accountability, and demonstrate the robustness and rigour of their processes and decisions.
Those within the system, the regulatory authorities, the manu-facturers and the investigators, the helicopter operators and the oil and gas companies need to demonstrate at every stage a level of accountability and transparency.
Without this, there will be gaps, unanswered questions, mistrust and ultimately anxiety and fear for some.