How safe are helicopter tours?
A helicopter tour carrying six people crashed into New York City’s East River on Sunday, killing five. Last month, a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon turned deadly when it burst into flames and crashed into the canyon. Five of the seven onboard died, either at the scene or at the hospital.
For the past 15 years, the industry has been plagued by accidents. However, helicopter tours remain incredibly popular among tourists. Each year, an estimated 800,000 people fly over the Grand Canyon alone in helicopters and fixed-wing aircrafts.
So, how dangerous are helicopter tours actually?
According to statistics shared with Fox News by a spokesperson with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), helicopter accidents were lower than they have been in previous years. In 2016, there were 106 accidents, 17 of those were fatal. In 2015, there were 121 helicopter accidents, with 17 also reported as fatal.
In a document released by the United States Helicopter Safety Team, data shows that accidents were down in 2017 from previous years. However, preliminary figures show that fatal accident rates increased.
“Accident rates for the U.S. civil helicopter industry flattened out during 2017, but remained well below accident totals from three and four years ago. Preliminary data shows that the 2017 accident rate was 3.55 per 100,000 flight hours, compared to an accident rate in 2016 of 3.45. This 3 percent increase stems from a few months during 2017 with uncharacteristically high accident totals – – 18 accidents in February and 23 accidents in July,” the document reads.
In 2017, 121 accidents were reported, 20 of them fatal crashes that resulted in 34 total fatalities.
“Compared to four years ago, however, the accident rate has been cut by one-third. The fatal accident rate also rose slightly year-over-year, but remained lower than the 2017 goal set by the United States Helicopter Safety Team,” the document concluded.
Statistically, helicopter fatality rates have improved since a high in 2013, which saw 62 fatalities across 146 reported helicopter accidents. Though, it was still an improvement from 2006, where previously worldwide civil helicopters were seeing an accident rate rising at 2.5 percent per year before new regulations were put in place.
Though, there is still a way to go to make the private helicopter sector as safe as commercial flights. The FAA is tackling the problem by educating the civil helicopter community about safe practices, as well as “taking an active role in advancing safety through new technology, collaborative policy changes and proactive outreach,” an FAA spokesperson shared.
Newer helicopters have reported less problems – almost all fatalities arise from faulty equipment or pilot error, according to the Washington Post. Inexperienced pilots are also blamed for helicopter collisions, Pix11 reports.
The FAA is reportedly working with helicopter industry representatives to ensure newly-manufactured helicopters “can help prevent injuries, post-crash fires and catastrophic damage from bird-strikes… In addition, the FAA required in 2014 that certain (Part 135) commercial helicopter operators, including air ambulances and air taxis, have stricter flight rules and procedures, improved communications, training, and additional on-board safety equipment,” an FAA spokesperson told Fox News.
However, though helicopter technology is improving and government agencies are being more proactive about safety, there is still a risk with any non-commercial flight — especially tours that may not be as regulated and can be overpopulated.
Michael Barr from the University of Southern California Aviation Safety Program said to ABC 11 of the potential dangers, “They’re going to be flying in an area where there’s other aircraft, and that their level of risk between that flight and flying into a city where your vacation is on a commercial airline … the risk of a tour is going to be greater.”