Hopkins Study Shows Risks of Offshore Helicopters

From 1983 to 2009, 178 crashes in the Gulf of Mexico alone involved 139 deaths. Mechanical failures caused 68 of them (38 percent), more than twice as many as bad weather.

Flying crews to and from drilling and exploration platforms in the Gulf of Mexico is a risky proposition, according to a new study published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. They identified 178 crashes involving 139 deaths from helicopter crashes between 1983 and 2009, or more than six crashes and five deaths per year.

The leading cause of these crashes was mechanical failure (68 crashes, 38 percent of the total), followed by bad weather (16 percent). They published the study in the September 2011 issue of Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.

Researchers from the center, which is part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined fatal and non-fatal crash records of the National Transportation Safety Board from the period. They found the most common result of mechanical failure in both types of crashes was a loss of engine power, which occurred in almost one-third of fatal crashes. The majority of forced landings following mechanical failure occurred in water, with 20 percent resulting in the sinking of the helicopter even though most helicopters are equipped with pilot-activated flotation devices, the researchers reported.

Bad weather was the second most common principal cause of crashes and resulted in the largest number of deaths. Pilot error was a major contributor to 83 crashes (47 percent), with poor decision-making the leading type of error cited.

"This study raises concern about the safety of helicopter flights related to oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly during bad weather," said Susan P. Baker, MPH, professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and the paper's lead author. "Our findings suggest that efforts to reduce crashes and deaths must address mechanical failure, non-activation of flotation devices, and pilot error."

Baker, a licensed private pilot, received the Aerospace Medical Association's Harry G. Moseley Award in 2010 for her work in applying the public health model to aviation safety.

The study found crashes have increased recently, from 5.6 annually during 1983-1999 to 8.2 annually during 2000-2009. After 2007, however, the researchers measured a decrease in crashes. "While the apparent deterioration in safety over time is alarming, I am encouraged by the most recent data," Baker said. "Only time will tell whether this is a temporary statistical blip or the beginning of a positive trend."

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and by grant funding from CDC. Additional authors of "Helicopter Crashes Related to Oil and Gas Operations in the Gulf of Mexico" are Dennis F. Shanahan (associate faculty at the center), Wren Haaland (consultant to the center), Joanne Brady (Columbia University), and Guohua Li (Columbia University).

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