The tourist air traffic business has been growing steadily over the past decade. In large cities or over state and federal parks, there are now many tourist helicopter operations just waiting to take visitors on a bird’s eye tour of the area. With the accident over the Hudson River this month in which a small plane and a tourist helicopter collided and nine people were killed, questions have been raised about the general safety of tourist helicopters.
The data seems to indicate that generally tourist helicopters are fairly safe. In 2008 there were 3.813 million flight hours and 149 accidents. That number represented the highest number of hours flown in any year in the past decade and also the lowest number of accidents. This could be a sign that as more tourist helicopters take to the air, there is more awareness on the part of air traffic controllers to the presence of these choppers. The numbers seem to vary greatly by state, however, and these states seem to be consistent in their accident numbers. In the United States, Wyoming, Alaska and Idaho had the most aviation accidents in 2004 and 2005. Hawaii was a close fourth. It is interesting to note that in these areas, tourist helicopter tours over the ocean, mountains and state parks are very popular and generally take place in wilderness areas which may be hard to reach by emergency crews in the case of an accident.
Helicopter accidents in general are fairly rare for the number of flight hours the vehicles log every year. Midair collisions like the one that occurred over the Hudson River are even rarer; in Manhattan, the last midair collision between a plane and a tourist helicopter occurred in 1983 and the choppers have been flying in Manhattan since 1956.
The Federal Aviation Administration is the agency that regulates helicopters and helicopter companies and it also has a say in regulating air space that such tours and companies fly in. There have been calls for the FAA to regulate more stringently the air space in which tourist helicopters fly in order to prevent more accidents from occurring like the one that happened earlier this month. Helicopter accidents, while rare, are generally quite devastating just by the nature of a helicopter’s flight action. A plane may attempt to glide on its wings or maintain power in an alternate engine if one fails. A helicopter, however, is powered and remains aloft by the power of its main rotor. The tail rotor merely provides the air craft with stability and steering. Thus, if damage or malfunction occurs in the rotor, there is very little chance that the helicopter can recover its altitude or upward momentum.
When deciding to go on a helicopter tour, there are several things you can do as a consumer to ensure that you are making a safe choice. Look for outfits that advertise that they are FAA Part 135 certified which means that they must adhere to higher standards than the general standards. Also, be sure to familiarize yourself with the tour’s reputation and also with the safety information which they should provide to you upon your arrival and before your tour begins. Never be afraid to ask questions about safety information or safety records of the tour operator you have selected. As with any other product you may wish to purchase, if you are not happy with what is being offered, go elsewhere. Most areas which offer helicopter tours will have more than one tour operation in business. If you are traveling abroad and wish to use a tour operator, be extra wary and cautious as not all foreign countries regulate air safety as rigorously as the United States.
For how many hours tourist helicopters log and for as many people as fly on these commercial tours every year, it must be said that for the most part, tourist helicopters are safe. No vehicle can ever be completely risk-free but the number of accidents in the United States per the flight hours seems to indicate just how safe they really are. If you have selected your tour based on reputation, general impression of safety and professionalism and certification, you should be just fine on an exciting aerial tour of your destination.