Helicopters v Software

Eurocopter AS 332 L2By now, you will all know that another Super Puma, this one operated by CHC, has ditched just west of Sumburgh near the Shetland Islands. This tragic accident claimed 4 lives of the 18 souls on board the aircraft. I’m sure everyone will join me in extending best wishes and condolences to the family and friends of those that perished.

This accident is tragic enough but the fact that the flight was apparently just 2 miles short of its destination makes the tragedy somewhat crueller, added to this is the consideration that the impact was probably not the cause of the terrible loss of life, but some other factor which I believe to be related to difficulties experienced in exiting the wreckage. It’s a horrific thought to contemplate that the passengers survived the crash but died trying to free themselves.

Helicopter 01

Pictures courtesy of Peter Hutchison/Shetland News

The industry is already up in arms and I believe that CHC, Bristow and Bond have, for the time being, grounded their fleet of this model of helicopter (except for medevac or life saving missions). The actual model is believed to be a Eurocopter AS332 L2 and initial speculation was that there may have been a main rotor gearbox failure similar to those that had apparently failed inĀ  two EC 225 aircraft accidents, also operating in the North Sea. Eurocopter have issued a statement which confirms that the helicopter which crashed on Friday had a different variant of the gearbox, perhaps suggesting that this was not the cause of the accident.

What is clear is that something went tragically wrong. Survivors reported a sudden loss of power without warning, and had no time to even brace themselves for impact. Fortunately the two pilots (and let’s spare a thought for the crew here) survived and they will, or should, be able to provide the best commentary on the circumstances. The AAIB will obviously be conducting a very thorough investigation presumably supported by Eurocopter, who have already dispatched senior management to assist, and in due course there will be answers and recommendations.

Unfortunately, however regardless of the findings and rectifications, modifications and implementation of new procedures etc etc there will inevitably always be crashes. And the reason for this is simple. It’s because life isn’t!. Life is complicated and so are helicopters. Development of any product has to start with concept and design, followed by proto-type after improved proto-type until we get to a fully fledged ‘tested’ model ready for full production – which is when the real issues are identified and the problems start to manifest themselves.

Pictures courtesy of Peter Hutchison/Shetland News

Pictures courtesy of Peter Hutchison/Shetland News

My comments are derived from my professional experience of the computer industry. I am relatively experienced in both hardware and software and as you will know yourself neither are ever perfect. Software in particular cycles through a number of iterations before it is then released in beta format to a selected user base for testing. Feedback from the test base of users is then considered and fixes made to the bugs that are identified. Then at some point the software is released to its mass audience. This is where the real testing takes place, in real world environments, and in greater volume than a beta version.

Helicopter design and production is no different. When the manufacturer feels they’ve tested enough and passed the certification requirements they release it to the marketplace where it is tested to the limit in real world scenarios. Like software, when things go wrong or a piece of code isn’t quite correct we may experience something usual or a feature might not function as it should. With a helicopter, we may experience a button that doesn’t quite do its job or a vibration that wasn’t previously there, but we only know this when it’s really pushed out to it’s mass market and pushed to the limit. And, unfortunately, like a piece of software or a hard drive, the worst case scenario is a crash – and it’s no different in a helicopter.



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