“Mixed” safety picture for 2008: NTSB

By John Croft

Preliminary 2008 accident statistics compiled by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reveal a “mixed picture”, with improvements in some sectors and higher accident rates in others.

For US-based scheduled air carriers (Part 121), there were 20 accidents in 2008, six more than in 2007, but with no passenger fatalities in either year. The yearly tally covered nearly 19 million flight hours and more than 10 million departures, down 0.5 % and 0.1% from 2007, respectively.

The NTSB defines an accident as an event in which any person on board an aircraft suffers death or serious injury, or where the aircraft receives “substantial” damage.

For non-scheduled Part 121 flights, there were three people killed last year, two of whom were on-board the aircraft. The sector accounted for 621,000 flight hours and 190,000 departures. In 2007 there was one fatality for non-scheduled flights, with roughly the same number or flight hours and departures.

Most concerning to NTSB officials for 2008 are the accident statistics for the Part 135 on-demand air taxi segment, with a fatal accident rate of 0.52 per 100,000 flight hours. The sector, which includes emergency medical services helicopters, experienced 19 fatal accidents killing 66 people, up from 43 fatalities and 14 accidents in 2007. The overall accident rate for on-demand flights was 1.52 per 100,000 flight hours, nearly the same as the 1.54 rate in 2007.

For general aviation, the accident rate was slightly up from last year, with 7.11 accidents per 100,000 flight hours compared to 6.92 in 2007. The fatal accident rate increased to 1.25 per 100,000 flight hours, up from 1.20 in 2007.

“While the overall aviation safety record in the US is among the best in the world, the 2008 accidents statistics reveal a mixed picture,” says NTSB acting chairman Mark Rosenker. “We are particularly concerned with the spike in fatalities in on-demand air charter operations.”

Investigators seek clues to Cougar S-92 final moments

By John Croft

Canadian safety investigators say the Cougar Helicopters S-92 that went down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland on 12 March hit the water “belly first” in an upright position with a “tail-low” attitude, a finding that could indicate the pilots may have been able to maintain attitude control of the twin-engine heavy helicopter if not its vertical descent rate during the ditching attempt.

Investigators said accelerometers in the seats of the helicopter showed an impact force of 20Gs, a level one expert called “quite abrupt.” The aircraft’s tail section separated from the main fuselage, with the upper deck and main cabin badly damaged but holding together. Seventeen of the 18 onboard perished in the crash. The picture below, provided by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), shows the top deck during the recovery process.


TSB officials during the most recent press conference on 26 March say power to the flight data and cockpit voice recorders was cut off for unknown reasons as the helicopter attempted to cruise back to land at 243m (800ft) altitude. Shortly before, pilots reported the loss of all oil pressure in the helicopter’s main gearbox (MGB), the mechanism that transfers power from the twin General Electric CT7-8A turboshaft engines to the main rotor and tail rotor.

That same oil also cools the aircraft’s two electrical power generators, raising the possibility that aircraft power was lost before the crash. Backup power is supplied by a Honeywell auxiliary power unit, providing it is started.

Less than one minute after the recorders stopped, pilots radioed that they were preparing to ditch. Radar returns showed the aircraft descend to approximately 91m at a rate of approximately 1,000fpm before disappearing.

Officials say they are confident that the in-flight oil loss was caused by cracking of two of the three titanium MGB oil filter bowl studs, a finding that prompted US and European regulators to ground the fleet on 24 March. Sikorsky in January asked operators to replace the studs with steel equivalents after a similar failure last year, though the alert gave operators one year or 1,250h to perform the work.

Canadian investigators are unsure as yet if the crew had attempted to deploy the helicopter’s three flotation devices during the ditching. The forward float was found to be out of its bag while the two rear floats remained in their bags.

Commenting on the possibility that the loss of MGB oil may have caused the main rotor to seize, TSB officials say damage signs on the rotor heads and rotor blades indicate there was “some” rotor energy apparent at splashdown. However they were not yet able to determine whether the rotation was the result of engine power or air pressure from an autorotation attempt.

Investigators are hoping retrieved memory cards from the helicopter’s Rockwell Collins avionics suite might help uncover aircraft performance data during the final seconds of the flight. The lone survivor in the accident has been released from the hospital, but has not yet commented on the crash.

UK investment in CSeries down slightly after nacelle bid fails

By Mary Kirby

UK investment in the Bombardier CSeries development programme has declined slightly after the airframer’s Belfast plant failed to win a bid to produce the nacelle for the geared turbofan-powered airliner.

The CSeries’ advanced composite wings will be developed and produced by Bombardier in Belfast. But with the Northern Ireland facility unsuccessful in its nacelle bid, UK investment now stands at £142.7 million ($209.7 million), down £12.3 million from the previously announced investment of £155 million.

Bombardier has not yet announced the winning bidder for CSeries nacelle work.

The Canadian manufacturer says, however, that the $2.6 billion funding needed to develop the CSeries will still come in roughly equal shares from Bombardier, principal suppliers, and government repayable investments, which includes loans worth $350 million from Ottawa and $118 million from Quebec.

“In the big picture, [the drop in UK investment] didn’t really change the proposition of the one third, one third, one third [split between] government, suppliers and Bombardier,” says Bombardier Aerospace president and chief operating officer Guy Hachey.

Separate to this funding, Bombardier has already spent $252 million on the CSeries programme from its free cash flow, bringing its total announced investment to over $1 billion in the programme.

While acknowledging that Bombardier is offering the CSeries “in a very challenging environment”, the company remains confident it will secure additional orders this year, after Lufthansa and lessor LCI announced a combined 50 firm orders plus options.

As CSeries work ramps up, Bombardier will be able to re-allocate some employees to new positions to reduce the firm’s planned headcount reduction, which rose today by another 3,000 workers across North America, Mexico and Northern Ireland due to rapid deterioration in business aircraft demand.

The Belfast cuts, numbering 975, will largely focus on contractual positions, and come in addition to the 300 redundancies announced in February.

Hachey says Bombardier is going to see “how we can flow some of the people being displaced” from major aircraft programmes to the CSeries and other lines.

For example, demand for Bombardier’s Q400 has remained steady, as evidenced by some recent orders, and thus supports increased production.

Commenting on the news of cuts at Bombardier in Northern Ireland, Society of British Aerospace Companies chief executive Ian Godden said the current downturn in business jet demand, resulting in job losses, indicates “the need for continued government support for the successful world-class Bombardier facility in Northern Ireland and the hundreds of companies across the UK in its supply chain”.

He adds: “Bombardier is investing in a major new commercial aircraft programme, the CSeries which was launched at Farnborough last year. Two substantial orders were announced for CSeries earlier this month, and Bombardier in Belfast is developing the composite wings for the aircraft and will soon begin construction work on a new purpose-built factory, which will provide a further boost for Northern Ireland. Despite today’s announcement Bombardier’s presence in Northern Ireland will deliver vital economic benefits in the near future. To secure these long-term benefits the support of the Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly will be vital.”

EFB provider navAero plots new path without Saab

By John Croft

Electronic flight bag (EFB) and technology developer, navAero, reports that its founder and largest shareholder, Stefan Ridderheim, has become the majority shareholder after taking an 81% stake in the company, removing Saab Group as the second largest shareholder.

The company in January 2008 reported a “significant” investment in equity capital through a private placement of stock from Saab.

“The change of ownership was an absolute necessity to guarantee navAero’s long-term future,” says Ridderheim. “We need to be in control of our own destiny – and not subject to the changing views of investors that are often influenced by outside factors.

Ridderheim, who has secured more than $4 million in new financing, says he had been exploring bringing new owners into the company but could not find “good options” that fit with its strategic plans. “It became apparent that the only way to have truly committed financial resources was to take the aggressive step and secure the future for ourselves which is exactly what I have done,” he says.

navAero, which supplies Class II EFBs to 21 airline customers, reports a backlog of approximately $15 million, enough work to carry it through to 2011.

Ridderheim adds that navAero now has “the assets in-place that will further fuel its growth and secure its position as the most preferred, accepted and deployed EFB system in the commercial aviation market.”

LAN completes first flight with winglets

By Rainer Uphoff

Chile’s LAN has has performed the first commercial flight using a Boeing 767-300ER equipped with winglets developed by Aviation Partners Boeing.

LAN says that the first flight with the winglet equipped aircraft was operated between its Santiago de Chile base and Buenos Aires. The carrier is the first Latin American airline to install winglets on its fleet of Boeing 767-300ERs.

LAN is investing $70 million to retrofit its entire fleet of 767 passenger and cargo aircraft with bended winglets before the end of 2010, hoping to achieve fuel savings of more than 5%.


US Marine Corps plans to convert KC-130J tankers into gunships

By Stephen Trimble

The US Marine Corps has decided to convert some Lockheed Martin KC-130J tankers into combination surveillance platforms and gunships.

The renamed KC-130J “Harvest Hawk” would retain the wing-mounted refuelling pods and tanker mission, but add a new targeting sensor and a 30mm cannon, the USMC says.

Marine commanders have issued an urgent request for the Harvest Hawk capability, believing that the KC-130J could be used as more than simply a refuelling system for helicopters and tiltrotors. “If we can get more utility out of the tanker platform – then why not,” the service says.

US Naval Air Systems Command is working with several suppliers to implement the Harvest Hawk platform.

Lance Cpl Kelly Chase/US Navy
© Lance Cpl Kelly Chase/US Navy

The electro-optical targeting sensor is a pending choice between Lockheed’s Target Sight System (TSS) already installed on the Bell Helicopter AH-1Z attack helicopter, or the L-3 Wescam MX-15. The TSS has already been selected for installation on some Lockheed AC-130 gunships operated by US Special Operations Command.

The precise number of Harvest Hawk platforms to be prepared and the timeline for deliveries was not immediately available.

When it is deployed, the Harvest Hawk will join a growing mix of manned aircraft being converted into multi-role surveillance and strike platforms. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, now operates C-130s called Shadow Harvest, which are equipped with a BAE Systems hyperspectral imaging sensor.

The US Air Force is converting more than 30 Beechcraft C-12 Hurons into a new manned surveillance fleet called MC-12 Libertys.

The US Army started the trend in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006 by converting some Shorts C-23B Sherpas into surveillance platforms called Constant Hawks.