7th July 2022

Sanctioned company violations

Initial Report

The helicopter industry is suffering from a slow implementation of RNP procedures and gradual withdrawal of numerous legacy Instrument Approach Procedures (IAP). Despite our modern fleet being able to fly highly accurate internal GPS approaches, these procedures do not exist in any recognised way and no formal training exists for their use. Rumour suggests that the practice of conducting non-published IFR approaches is common, there is even suggestion that collusion exists at the regulatory level. My company ops manual does not sanction their use unless as part of a published IAP, but many pilots feel pressured into doing them and there is a culture that the business would not survive without breaking certain rules so, if pilots don’t like it, they should leave. There is sense to the use of the ā€˜VFR approach modeā€™ – used correctly it can have great accuracy, but with no training or published standards it becomes the Wild West. I have heard pilots describing its use to 300′ agl when IMC!

If the system is safe to use could the CAA not authorise it? In the meantime, aircrew operating on AOCs (Air Operator Certificates) and beholden to their licence are expected to violate published regulations placing many of us under ever-increasing stress. We are forever being told that accidents are 80% human error but the system is working against us when we cannot utilise available technologies designed to make our lives safer. There is certainly scope to make these approaches safe, or at least safer than flying low-level in marginal VFR conditions.

CAA Comment

There are two elements in this report that the CAA would like to address. With regard to descent below Minimum Flight Altitude (MFA) with the intent to land, the CAA is reviewing the guidance (for both meaning and intent) of the flight alleviations in UK Standardised European Rules of the Air (SERA), with a planned delivery date of Q2 2022. Point in Space (PinS) descent procedures are available to be developed, but the take-up has been slow due to a combination of perceived cost issues and lack of both industry and CAA resource. This potential has been discussed with industry, and the CAA will continue to engage with the onshore operators to see how we can facilitate procedure take up. The CAA has no remit or capacity to design such procedures.

CHIRP Comment

The specific operational issues in this report refer to SERA 5015(b) which states that:

(b) Ā Minimum levels

Except when necessary for take-off or landing, or except when specifically authorised by the competent authority, an IFR flight shall be flown at a level which is not below the minimum flight altitude established by the State whose territory is overflown, or, where no such minimum flight altitude has been established:

(1) Ā over high terrain or in mountainous areas, at a level which is at least 600 m (2 000 ft) above the highest obstacle located within 8 km of the estimated position of the aircraft;

(2) Ā elsewhere than as specified in (1), at a level which is at least 300 m (1 000 ft) above the highest obstacle located within 8 km of the estimated position of the aircraft.

The legislation effectively provides alleviation for descent below MFA when IFR provided the aircraft is intending to land (which for a helicopter could be anywhere). The helicopter industry reports that this practice is commonplace and causing considerable concern within the responsible elements of the sector because of pilots apparently routinely descending to 500ft or below in IMC on unapproved let-downs. The Onshore Helicopter Review Report (CAP1864, November 2019) mentions IFR GPS let-downs at Para 14.18-14.20 and includes Action A14 which states that: ā€œThe CAA will review SERA 5015 and consider implementing a national position so that all IFR take-offs and landings are conducted in accordance with either notified or approved proceduresā€. Whilst the use of PinS would provide a tool for such IMC descents, CHIRP understands that, at present, the development of PinS procedures requires a CAP1616 airspace change process to be invoked, and any measures that the CAA can take to reduce this burden would be very welcome in encouraging their introduction; the CAA have responded favourably to this suggestion as a potential way of accelerating PinS airspace changes.

However, the concerns are bigger than just the specific issue at hand, and relate to unofficial practices being conducted in contravention of company operating manuals and wider regulations. In Human Factors terms this is referred to as ā€˜normalised devianceā€™, which describes procedures and processes that have become accepted over time as ā€˜the way things are doneā€™ in order to achieve a task. Some CHIRP members commented that they had anecdotal evidence that IMC descents were accepted to the extent that sometimes they were included in flight checks; this was an example of ā€˜normalised devianceā€™ infiltrating into the very core of safety and cannot be condoned at any level. Whilst there may be understandable pressures to break rules for operational benefit, many such rules have been developed through hard lessons written in blood and lives lost. CHIRP provides one way of reporting such concerns if reporters feel too vulnerable to put their heads above the parapet; the CAA also provides a whistleblowing service that is available to anyone and allows the CAA to engage directly with industry and reporters to resolve issues in a timely manner.

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