Is it still safe to fly on a U.N. helicopter?

On March 9, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter flying under the U.N. flag lost its way in heavy rains and crashed into a densely wooded mountainside in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), killing all 4 Russian crew members on board and prompting a review of U.N. safety regulations. The helicopter — ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Courtesty of the United Nations
Courtesty of the United Nations
Courtesty of the United Nations

On March 9, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter flying under the U.N. flag lost its way in heavy rains and crashed into a densely wooded mountainside in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), killing all 4 Russian crew members on board and prompting a review of U.N. safety regulations.

The helicopter -- contracted by the Russian airliner UTair -- was traveling without an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system which warns a pilot when the aircraft is about to hit the ground, a building, or the side of mountain. The device, which is more commonly used in Western planes and helicopters, is not required in U.N. aircraft.(*See note below)

In response to the air tragedy, the United Nations quickly issued an internal email indicating that it would require the device be installed in all U.N. aircraft. But the decision was rescinded following complaints by Russia, whose suppliers don’t use the security devices in their own aircraft, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the matter. The fatal crash near the town of Bukavu was the worst U.N. air accident in the DRC since April 4, 2011, when a U.N.-contracted Georgian Airways Bombadier CRJ-100 jet crash-landed at the Kinshasa airport in stormy weather, killing 32 of the 33 passengers and crew aboard. Following that accident, a top U.N. official advised Ukraine to urge its helicopter suppliers to upgrade their own safety features, installing the more advanced ground warning systems in their helicopters, according to Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyez. But they never required it, and they refused to compensate companies that voluntarily installed the systems, which can add up to $150,00.00 to the price of a helicopter, Sergeyev said. Ukrainian firms, he added, installed the devices in some of their helicopters. Their Russian counterparts held off, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

On March 9, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter flying under the U.N. flag lost its way in heavy rains and crashed into a densely wooded mountainside in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), killing all 4 Russian crew members on board and prompting a review of U.N. safety regulations.

The helicopter — contracted by the Russian airliner UTair — was traveling without an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system which warns a pilot when the aircraft is about to hit the ground, a building, or the side of mountain. The device, which is more commonly used in Western planes and helicopters, is not required in U.N. aircraft.(*See note below)

In response to the air tragedy, the United Nations quickly issued an internal email indicating that it would require the device be installed in all U.N. aircraft. But the decision was rescinded following complaints by Russia, whose suppliers don’t use the security devices in their own aircraft, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the matter. The fatal crash near the town of Bukavu was the worst U.N. air accident in the DRC since April 4, 2011, when a U.N.-contracted Georgian Airways Bombadier CRJ-100 jet crash-landed at the Kinshasa airport in stormy weather, killing 32 of the 33 passengers and crew aboard. Following that accident, a top U.N. official advised Ukraine to urge its helicopter suppliers to upgrade their own safety features, installing the more advanced ground warning systems in their helicopters, according to Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyez. But they never required it, and they refused to compensate companies that voluntarily installed the systems, which can add up to $150,00.00 to the price of a helicopter, Sergeyev said. Ukrainian firms, he added, installed the devices in some of their helicopters. Their Russian counterparts held off, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

The latest incident highlights a risk for U.N. pilots that has been reduced for their counterparts who fly commercial aircraft or who pilot helicopters in the United States and Europe. A review of internal, confidential U.N. communications also underscores the U.N.’s sluggish effort to address a pressing safety issue that potentially threatens the lives of U.N. crews and passengers.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets international flight standards, recommends that U.N. aircraft carry the enhanced ground warning system. But the U.N. has determined that it is not mandatory. The post-crash debate is playing out against a wider U.N. competition over the lucrative air supply market. The U.N. peacekeeping department’s air fleet — at least 190 aircraft and 140 helicopters, in 17 U.N. missions around the world — relies largely on low-cost planes and  helicopters leased by private contractors or supplied by air forces from the developing world. The market has long been dominated by countries from the former Soviet Union — including Russia and Ukraine — that inherited a massive inventory of inexpensive aircraft after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and continues to produce variants of these rugged designs.

A number of European powers, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, have been seeking to break into the U.N. aircraft leasing market (estimated at $1 billion a year, according to U.N. figures, , offering more advanced aircraft with state-of-the-art safety features. They have encountered little success at the United Nations, where contracts are required to go to the lowest bidder, and where, some have privately complained, U.N. bidding specifications favor former Soviet aircraft.

Some U.N. diplomats believe that internal debate is driven as much by safety concerns as by competition for costly contracts, particularly between two top suppliers, Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian firms are currently bidding on a major new contract for helicopters for the DRC, and they have sought to secure a competitive edge by highlighting the fact that they are moving faster than their Russian competitors to equip all of their helicopters with enhanced ground warning systems.

“It is a purely commercial thing,” said one diplomat. “The Ukrainians were led to believe that the [safety] specifications for helicopters would be changed soon — and they added the special safety equipment on their own initiative. The Russians found out the specs were going to be changed and started complaining. So now, the Russians are pissed off that they risk losing contracts. And the Ukrainians are pissed off that the specs will not change.”

Sergeyev, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, said that as far back as 2011 the U.N.’s then chief  of the Department of Field Services, which manages logistics for U.N. peacekeeping missions, Susanna Malcorra, had urged him to instruct the country’s contractors to begin installing the warning systems on their aircraft. Sergeyev said Ukrainian contractors have begun to comply with the request but that the additional costs associated with the safety upgrades have made their helicopters less competitive. The U.N., meanwhile, has sent mixed signals about its commitment to safety, according to U.N. documents.

Shortly after the Russian crash, Christian Gregoire, an official from the U.N.’s Aviation Quality Assurance unit, sent out an email to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the DRC announcing  that the U.N. would now  require contractors upgrade their early warning systems.  “In the light of the recent tragic UTAIR mi-8 accident in MONUSCO [the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the DRC],” Gregoire wrote, according to a copy of the emailobtained by Turtle Bay, the U.N. peacekeeping department’s Air Transport Section “will shortly amend all contracts Terms and Conditions to make the EGPWS mandatory equipment on board all UN operated aircraft.”

Gregoire also warned that failure to install the warning systems could lead to the grounding of some helicopters, or restrictions on their use in peacekeeping operations.

In a separate March 12 memo, three days after the latest Russian air crash, an official from the U.N. aviation unit in the DRC, Andrei Anochkine, sent a memo to UTair charging that its aircraft were not in compliance with its contractual obligation to ensure greater ability to detect potential flight obstacles in low-visibility situations. “Safety is being compromised” by UTair’s failure to use the EGPWS in its aircraft, wrote Anochkine.

“Traditional GPWS can only monitor the ground directly beneath it,” he wrote. “This can be a problem if there is a very sudden change in the terrain and the GPWS cannot provide a prompt enough warning for the pilot to react. With Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), the system can track the course of the aircraft and see if it is heading towards a mountain or other similar threat.”

Together, the two memos appeared to mark a shift in the U.N. peacekeeping department’s air fleet safety policy,  But a subsequent department memo, drafted on April 12 by a U.N. procurement official, Sean Purcell, made clear that the policy had not in fact changed. While the installation of the new early warning systems would constitute an “advantage” to vendors offering helicopters to the U.N. “it is not mandatory at this juncture,” Purcell’s memo stated.

At U.N. headquarters, officials downplayed the contradictory communications, insist
ing that the U.N. had never officially committed to requiring the installation of the new safety systems. “There was no reversal of decision, as in fact there has been no decision,” she said.

“Our first priority is to ensure that our air operations are safe and reliable,” Ameerah Haq, the undersecretary general for the department of field support, which oversees logistics for U.N. peacekeeping missions, wrote in an April 30 letter to the Ukrainian ambassador. The U.N., she added, is “undertaking a review of technical and contractual arrangements in order to further reduce the safety risks associated with United Nations flights…This review may possibly conclude that EGPWS, or other similar systems, should be installed in all aircraft contracted” for U.N peacekeeping missions.

Still, the U.N. assurances did little to mollify the Ukrainian government. In a statement to troop-contributing countries earlier this month, Sergeyev denounced what he views as the U.N.’s reversal, accusing the global body  of “dangerously decreasing its attention to safety and security in the area of the helicopters procurement.”

“The overwhelming majority of the U.N.-contracted helicopters will operate without vitally important equipment,” that could imperil U.N. peacekeepers and others who travel on U.N. helicopters, Sergeyev added. “How many new tragedies” are required, he asked, before the U.N. will change its “position on safety and security in the aviation procurement practice?”

U.N. officials and UTair say that there is no evidence yet that the helicopter crash could have been prevented by an early warning system, and that the Russian government and the DRC are still investigating the cause of the crash. Therefore, Guerrero said, “we cannot speculate on the cause of the accident.”

U.N. officials also cite technical problems, noting that they are reluctant to early warning technology until they are confident that the digital maps of the terrain in many of the trouble spots where the U.N. operates, including the DRC and Sudan, are accurate. “The U.N. needs to verify that EGPWS will firstly deliver the expected, anticipated benefits,” and whether it can do so “without endangering the crew and passengers,” Guerrero said. “Aviation avionics and safety systems are highly technical and complex matters.”

Ilya Kimish, a spokesperson for UTair, wrote in an email message that  the helicopters it supplies to the United Nations are equipped with “meteorological location” and “radio altimeter” devices that can determine how far their aircraft are from the ground, and can detect other “artificial and natural obstacles” in the flight path. But he said there is a good reason why the U.N. doesn’t require aircraft to use enhanced proximity warning systems. They rely on detailed digital topographical maps and there “is a total absence of topographical maps of Africa.”

Another official said that it is likely that the U.N. will ultimately decide to require the enhanced ground-proximity early-warning systems, or another weather radar system that helps pilots navigate through stormy weather. But the official also said that the more advanced equipment would pose a fresh risk for U.N. pilots, giving them the additional confidence to fly in dangerous weather. The current U.N. policy, the official said, is “if you head into difficult weather you need to land and wait till the weather improves. If you are in doubt don’t fly.” The concern now, the official added, is that U.N. pilots will try to “push the envelope. In the end, it may actually add to the risk.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

(*Note:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the EGPWS is standard in the west. After I published this story, Elan Head, the special projects editor for Vertical Magazine, which cover the helicopter industry, contacted me to point out that Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS) for helicopters –more commonly known in the United States as Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS) – are not standard in the United States. In 2006, and again in 2009( following a spike in crashes by helicopter ambulances),” the National Transportation Safety Board, recommended that the Federal Aviation Authority require the installation of the devices on all helicopter ambulance operators. THE FAA has issued a proposed rule to this effect, but yet to adopt it. There is “widespread agreement that this [equipment] is a nice thing to have,” she said. “But the equipment is not standard in the United States.” Turtle Bay regrets the error.)

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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