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U.K. CAA Demands Upgrades on Faulty Copters

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Following a year-long probe into accidents involving Airbus Group helicopters used for North Sea oil operations, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has demanded upgrades to new and existing models in order to minimize the vulnerability of these aircrafts to malfunctions.

The CAA’s independent evaluation was incited by 25 offshore crashes in the past 2 decades, including two high-profile accidents in 2012, involving Airbus EC225 models. The U.K. regulator recommended new designs to safeguard users who rely on offshore helicopter flights.

The Glitch

Airbus witnessed two high-profile fatal crashes on AS332 medium-sized, twin-engined helicopter off Shetland and a police EC135 light, twin-engined helicopter on a pub in Glasgow, in addition to other non-fatal incidents involving EC225 offshore fleet of rotorcraft.

Preliminary studies indicated that the malfunction was caused by a crack in the gear shaft. After exhaustive investigation into the root cause, Airbus concluded that the crack resulted from assorted factors that collectively weakened fatigue strength of the vertical shaft in the main gearbox.

Airbus’ Safety Measures

Combating a heavy setback in terms of cost and confidence of operators, Airbus returned most of the EC225 fleet with a temporary fix. Exhibiting its commitment to technological advancement, Airbus increased safety through greater automation and reduction of crew workload in its new EC175 medium-sized, twin-engined helicopter.

It also outlined some preventive safety measures to reduce the possibility of malfunctions, including two additional measures that will detect crack initiation before take-off with a periodic ultrasonic non-destructive inspection. In case of an improbable failure of the same, a new on-board vibration monitoring system will identify the crack propagation and warn the pilot with adequate time for a safe return to base and a normal landing.

To improve the pilot’s awareness during flights, particularly during difficult weather conditions, Airbus has also come up with the latest generation of the EC225 with new glass cockpit, improved man-machine interface and 4-axes autopilot.

CAA’s Recommendations

Keeping in mind that the accidents are not confined to helicopters of one manufacturer, and that the use of helicopters for longer-range over-water missions in the energy sector is increasing, the CAA has put forward demands that helicopters are outfitted with flotation gear to safeguard passengers, and life-jackets and rafts be enhanced. It also recommended that workers using flights to oil platforms should get enhanced training.

As an interim safety measure, until the recommendations are implemented and all helicopters are fitted with flotation or emergency breathing equipment, helicopter capacity will be restricted from June to ensure each passenger is next to an emergency exit.

Moving Forward

With recession hurting demand in the aviation sector, oil and gas industry has emerged as the likely savior for global commercial helicopter manufacturers including Airbus, Finmeccanica SpA’s AgustaWestland and United Technology Corp.’s (UTX - Analyst Report) Sikorsky. As energy companies seek to exploit more remote reserves, demand for medium-sized and heavy helicopters is expected to increase significantly.

Airbus Group currently holds a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold). Some other stocks in the industry that look promising and are worth a look include Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC - Analyst Report), holding a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy) and Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. (HII - Snapshot Report), carrying a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy).

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