Born: France
Primarily active in: France

Gilles Bruniaux, Vice President, Fleet Safety, Eurocopter

Eurocopter vice president for fleet safety Gilles Bruniaux leads an interdisciplinary team of 15 people who respond to each mishap involving his company’s helicopters. “We are directly, hierarchically linked to the Chief Executive Officer, which means we have safety at the highest level,” he explains. “We have accident investigators in the organization and other experts who are responsible for working with all the directorates of the company. For example, we work with people from research and development, training, technical support, communications . . . . ”The Eurocopter safety team also routinely interfaces with government accident investigators – the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile (BEA), the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and others. “During the accident investigations, we are invited in as a technical adviser to bring all the needed OEM [original equipment manufacturer] expertise, mainly about the design of the helicopter. We regularly perform some in-depth technical analyses which contribute to understanding the accident scenario, and we often propose proactive safety recommendations to the official accident investigation board, which as an independent body is responsible for defining them.”

Beyond his corporate responsibilities, Mr. Bruniaux cochairs the European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST) and serves on the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) executive committee as EHEST representative. His military and civil flight test experience – and more than 1,600 fixedwing and helicopter flight hours – give him both engineering and pilot perspectives on technical and operational safety issues. Over the past five years serving as Eurocopter vice president of operational fleet safety, Mr. Bruniaux has overseen the introduction of low-cost image and data recorders on AS350 AStar light helicopters, which will help accident or incident investigations better understand what really happened. In addition, with the equipment provided for free on all new AStars delivered by American Eurocopter, operators can put HFDM (Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring) programs in place to improve their flight operations.

The strength of the IHST initiative is that it is a data-driven, global, coordinated action led by the worldwide helicopter community: authorities, accident investigation boards, operators, end users and OEMs. Mr. Bruniaux contributed to several IHST safety promotions, such as the production of safety leaflets related to better training. Through the IHST, he contributed heavily to the creation of Eurocopter safety conferences and a safety road-show for helicopter operators, end users and regulatory authorities in emerging countries. Mr. Bruniaux developed a data-driven campaign for maintaining Commercial Air Transport (CAT) single-engine operations over non-congested but “hostile” areas in Europe. (The European Union has put restrictions on single engine helicopter flights over cities.) With the Eurocopter flight test department, he helped develop safety-optimized takeoff and landing performance standards for offshore helidecks. The Eurocopter fleet safety vice president also helped create an industry partnership that gives helicopter operators lower insurance premiums in exchange for recurrent training performed within the Eurocopter training network. He observes, “Regulations for training are different in the US and Europe. For example, if you want to fly an AStar in Europe, you have a Type Rating that calls for a ground course and flight course, and an exam. Every year, you go for a check ride with a flight examiner. This type of regulation which exists already in the US for big helicopters could be expanded to small helicopters if there were an opportunity for harmonization.”

Engineering Tradition
Growing up in Chatenay-Malabry near Paris and Lorient in Brittany, Gilles Bruniaux was drawn to aviation. “I was fascinated by aircraft and especially by fighters – my first dream was to become a fighter pilot.” Engineering was nevertheless a family tradition. “My father and my two grandfathers were engineers, Ecole Polytechnique for my father and my grandfather on his side, and Ecole Centrale for my grandfather on my mother’s side. Both are very prestigious engineering schools in France.” Good grades earned the young Bruniaux a fiercely competitive university spot. “Ecole Polytechnique in France is a very general engineering school highly regarded in physics, mathematics and so on. After Ecole Polytechnique, which is three years, I attended Ecole Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace, which is a specific engineering school for aeronautics for two years.” He adds, “My father worked for the French Ministry of Defense on military boat programs, but I am the first and only one in the family working in aeronautics and a pilot.”

Gilles Bruniaux earned his fixed-wing license on a fourseat Robin HR100 during his time at Ecole Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace, but he was drawn to helicopters. “Helicopters were for me a mysterious thing, and I was interested by these strange machines,” he recalls. As a graduate aerospace engineer and a new officer in the French armament procurement agency DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armement), he entered the flight test engineer course of the test pilot school EPNER (École du Personnel Navigant d’Essais et de Réception) at Istres airbase. He graduated to run the Tiger attack helicopter flight test program for the government at the French flight test center CEV (Centre d’Essais en Vol) also at Istres. “When I was in flight test, I was more involved in performance and handling qualities as a flight test engineer. I was also an expert in the man-machine interface of the Tiger, which is a very complex system.” The Franco-German development program had its own complexities. “At the beginning, the official language was German for the Germans and French for the French. Practically, at the end we were all speaking English because it was too complex to have two different languages.”

Within the French Ministry of Defense, the DGA provides a unique interface. According to Mr. Bruniaux, “It’s something like a service responsible for the connection between the OEMs, and the true operational guys, the Army. There were very few people like me, a helicopter pilot and flight test engineer, in between the military people and the industry people. When I left the DGA, I was a chief engineer equivalent to a colonel.”

Air Force pilot training at Toulouse gave Gilles Bruniaux military single- and twin-engine, Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) helicopter qualifications. Followon pilot training with French Army Aviation ALAT (Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre) at Le Luc qualified him on the Gazelle armed scout and gave him practice in night vision goggle flights and air-to-air gun combat. He recalls, “The combat flights were a little bit acrobatic, and you needed to be well-trained! The risk when you try to shoot the enemy is that you could focus too much on the target and forget the environment and the safety of your own trajectory.”

Flight training and subsequent assignments gave the DGA officer time in the single-engined Alouette II, Alouette III and AStar, and in the twin-engine Fennec, Dauphin and Puma. Mr. Bruniaux recalls, “I liked the Alouette II because it was friendly to pilots, and it was my first helicopter. There was really no equipment, no systems. It was very basic. You had to feel the helicopter. If I had to choose now, the AStar is very good, but of course it depends on what you have to do. I also like the big ones, the twin-engine [aircraft], for IFR.”

As the head of helicopter flight testing back at CEV, Gilles Bruniaux was involved in managing the team responsible for the four-country, fly-by-wire NH90 flight test program on the government side. “What was very sensitive in fly-by-wire at this time was that you had to trust the system,” he recalls. “With all the experience we have in classical controls, everybody trusts the system. When the system is several computers, you can feel less safe because you know that if you have a ‘bug,’ your helicopter may fly in a completely erratic way. It was the same thing for the first fly-by-wire airplanes 20 years ago. In reality, fly-by-wire is safer because you have to demonstrate that a bug cannot lead to a catastrophic event, and it adds value in terms of mission performance for the pilot. We’ve had the experience on helicopters more recently, and I’m quite sure in 20 years, all the new [helicopters] – at least all the new military helicopters – will have Fly-By-Wire.”

Management and Safety
The DGA career path led to a tour at AIA-CP (Industriel Aeronautique at Cuers-Pierrefeu), the big aviation depot maintenance and upgrade center of the French Ministry of Defense at Cuers-Pierrefeu naval base. As technical director and deputy general manager, Mr. Bruniaux ultimately oversaw a staff of 800 people in production, logistics and engineering. “I was responsible for a big team. It was really high-level management, but where you had to understand technical issues. It was interesting for me from a safety standpoint because I had my experience as a flight test engineer in helicopters on everything linked to pilot issues. With my experience in the maintenance activity, even if it was at the management level, it was very interesting for me to really know what the difficulties were for an organization responsible for maintenance.”

Joining Eurocopter in 2005 as vice president of flight test, Mr. Bruniaux transitioned to commercial helicopter develop-ment. He acknowledges, “For sure, at the end of the day, it takes longer to develop military aircraft than civil aircraft. Civil programs are directly funded by Eurocopter. Military aircraft like the NH90 are more complex with more systems, things like that. The customer has specific requests, and you have to develop things according to what is in the contract. You are less free in a military program than a commercial program.”

In 2006, the Eurocopter vice president-engineer was charged with improving flight safety management to further reduce the Eurocopter global fleet accident rate over a 10- year period, in step with the IHST target of a 80% reduction. The work led to the current high-level safety organization and ongoing technology, training and service initiatives. Eurocopter has, for example, experimented with an electrical autorotation motor on the turbine-powered AStar. Mr. Bruniaux explains, “The idea is if you have a failure of the turbine engine in flight, you will still have some power to make it easier for the pilot to pull down on the collective pitch and perform an autorotation. At the end of the autorotation, instead of zero power, you have some energy, so the landing is far easier.” Initial flight tests were promising, but “We continue to work to bring the concept at the level of maturity needed for putting such a device into serial production. I hope that in five or 10 years, we will have something in production for our new helicopters.”

The Eurocopter vice president also hopes for an efficient and affordable wire strike detection system as well as rear rotor and main rotor proximity detection systems on helicopters. According to Mr. Bruniaux, “We have something for detection of wires based on laser technology. The problem is it’s very expensive. So we’re working on a new kind of technology like radar because we want to try to provide the same function on a helicopter for an affordable price.” He adds, “That’s important – if we can provide safety equipment or function for the customer, it has to be affordable because if it’s not, people won’t buy it.”

The Eurocopter safety team and IHST note that 80% of all helicopter accidents involve operational/human factors. Mr. Bruniaux says, “To really improve operator safety, we need that operator to have a good safety culture. That’s the main thing. It’s not technology; it’s the safety culture in a Safety Management System (SMS). That means, for example, if a company is putting too much pressure on its pilots to fly in bad weather, the pilot should be able to say, ‘Today, I won’t go flying.’ One of the greatest risks for helicopter VFR pilots is bad decision-making, which can lead to Inadvertent IMC [instrument meteorological conditions] and end in loss of control and a fatal accident. We have a lot of cases like that.”

Mr. Bruniaux observes, “The missions helicopters fly can be so different that they can have a lot of specific risks. That is why an efficient assessment of risk has to be made at the operator level.” He concludes, “The accident rate of helicopters has decreased for the past five years, but we have to go a step further now. We know how we can improve the operators’ flight safety with SMS, HFDM, training, maintenance programs and relevant equipment according to their mission type. We now have to continue to work together at the worldwide helicopter community level to increase the safety awareness of operators, mainly the small ones.”

Leadership Profile: Vertiflite January/February 2012