Minnesota helicopter crash highlights need for tighter safety regulations

Helicopter safety remains an important issue, as a recent crash in Minnesota underscores. Attention to the issue has been an important factor improving flight safety over the past decade.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/AP
An investigator looks over the scene where a helicopter crashed in a field in Lino Lakes, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. Two people died when a helicopter erupted in 'a large fireball' as it crashed into a field in the Twin Cities suburb.

Helicopters may be getting safer, but there’s still room for improvement.

Two people lost their lives when a helicopter crashed Thursday evening in Lino Lakes, Minn., a St. Paul suburb, Anoka County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Paul Sommer said in a Tweet Friday. The names of those involved in the crash are being withheld while the families are notified, according to a statement from the sheriff’s office.

The crash underscores the need for careful efforts to improve the safety of helicopters, which perform a range of functions across the United States every day. Annual crash levels remain high, though a substantial drop in 2015 may be attributable to new safety guidelines.

Helicopters are a key part of US infrastructure, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2014:

Hundreds of helicopters take to the sky every day. Some flights bear journalists monitoring traffic and breaking news. Others support law enforcement. Many transport medical patients and supplies.

With that in mind, it’s vital to ensure that individuals using helicopters can do so safely, and successfully accomplish their tasks. A National Transportation Safety Board report, released in 2014, called for “a concerted effort ... to improve the safety of helicopter operations.” It described the number of accidents – almost 1,500, with nearly 500 resulting fatalities – as “unacceptably high.”

The report laid out a number of policies that can be implemented to improve helicopter safety. A revised approach to safety inspections and maintenance is needed, it said. One facet of that: limiting the hours maintenance staff work to help ensure that they are alert while checking aircraft for irregularities. It’s also important that pilots get the training they need on how to respond when things go wrong, whether because of the weather or mechanical failure.

There is some progress to report, possibly as a result of these policies. Helicopter Association International released data showing that crashes in the United States were down more than 15 percent in 2015 compared with a year earlier. There is a general trend of increased safety over the past decade.

The events of the Minnesota crash are currently under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. Some witnesses reported seeing the helicopter’s blade stop turning before it crashed. Others say the aircraft began to break into pieces before hitting the ground. Either before or after hitting the ground, it burst into what Commander Sommer described as a “large fireball.”

Authorities have asked residents to contact police if they find any debris from the crash that could contribute to the investigation.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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