HAI/Bryan Matuskey

Equip your team with critical safety information before every flight.

Many of us in crewed aircraft operations function regularly as a team, know each other well, and often work on repetitive missions. This can be a positive, but as we all know, it can also be a recipe for stagnation and complacency.

One human-factors study of commercial accident data (Shappell et al., 2007) found that 80% of crew resource management (CRM) failures involved preflight activities, including briefings and planning. A good crew conversation about the PAVE (Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, External pressures) elements can interrupt the error chain by arming your team with the information it needs to complete individual and collective OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loops throughout its shift and flights.

Because 14 CFR 91.103 only scratches the surface of the preflight information available, consider adding these 10 best practices to your crew briefings.

1. Use the IMSAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotion/Eating) mnemonic.

Ask your crew members to continuously evaluate themselves following this model and to formulate answers before arriving at work, with a final evaluation at the beginning-of-shift briefing. With helicopter operators’ dynamic work environments, IMSAFE elements can change quickly, thus requiring constant reassessment.

2. Discuss weather and terrain threats.

A detailed discussion of forecasted atmospheric conditions and effects gives the crew a better understanding of the environment before the tones ever sound. Be sure to include space weather and its possible effects on GNSS (global navigation satellite systems) and communications. The more information crew members have, the more confidently they can start their shift.

3. Explore light and lunar data.

Common in military flight planning but often overlooked in the civilian sector, understanding how light affects operations can be just as important as understanding the weather. Besides reviewing sunrise and sunset, talk about light and dark effects on angles and shadows, especially in mountainous regions; issues related to the use of night-vision goggles and forward-looking infrared sensors; and what to expect when flying from a rural area into population centers, and vice versa. We’ve had instances of flicker vertigo affecting some crew members, which is important to highlight, day or night.

4. Point out any maintenance issues, including lighting and electrical, especially if they could affect the crew’s work.

In our air ambulance operations, we depend on the medical crews to keep us up-to-date on any issues with the medical interior, equipment, and oxygen status, and any special equipment we’re required to carry. The crew can also be helpful when trying to identify and isolate abnormal sounds or vibrations.

5. Consider weight and balance data.

Besides any structural limitations, weight and balance affect flight control travel, performance, and capability. At my company, we use software to game possible scenarios: what our local flying area fuel should be, based on personnel and atmospheric conditions; what our maximum carrying capacity might be for the nearest sending facility or landing zone; how much fuel we can depart with for a long-distance flight; and what the situation is when flying pilot-only, leaving the crew behind. Since we often carry other medical professionals, observers, and sometimes law enforcement escorts, we need to know this type of information, along with seating positions, ahead of time.

6. Review airspace hazards.

Contingency planning starts with understanding the surrounding airspaces and their inherent hazards, including the current NOTAMs and temporary flight restrictions, military operations areas and training routes, and potential uncrewed aircraft systems and parachute-jumping activities. In our case, we also factor in helipad alerts that might affect us, as well as any changes to our medical iPad document—a sort of Chart Supplement for established hospital and preplanned landing zone facilities—which we collaborate on with our partner hospital’s safety officer.

7. Review the preceding shift’s activities.

In your beginning-of-shift briefing, collectively go over the debriefings from the previous pilot and crew. Doing so ensures continuity of thought between shifts throughout the week and into the next. In our air ambulance operations, we also take time to review our partner hospital’s medical crew utilization-times policy and plan. We cover any equipment recovery and drop-off issues as well as any required pharmacy and blood bank needs.

8. Encourage crew members to bring up any safety topic.

Every risk-mitigation conversation should include a chance for everyone to ask questions, express their concerns, and engage in a dialogue about safety. In our briefings, the ad hoc safety topics usually concern a local debrief item that requires attention, recent helicopter incidents and National Transportation Safety Board reports, general safety and operational culture discussions, and a review of an emergency or boldface procedure from the checklist.

9. Check in with an airside briefing.

This is the time for an update of any of the items above, as well as an opportunity to address any questions, before moving to the aircraft. It serves as a final check and confirmation that everyone is ready and fit to fly, safely and legally.

10. Conduct an immediate after-flight debriefing.

This can be as simple as asking, “Does anyone have any questions or comments about the flight?” Or, it can be as detailed as necessary, depending on the complexity of, or issues with, the operation. This information should be handed off to the next crew to enhance their situational awareness.

With today’s technology, a vast amount of flight information is available. Use the crew briefing as the valuable resource it is to communicate and process that data as a collective. This “shared mental model” is a vital part of sound operational planning and risk management and could be the most important piece of hazard and risk identification you conduct. It’s also why the crew briefing should perhaps be called the crew conversation.

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Greg Calvert

Greg Calvert

Greg Calvert is a former US Army conventional and special operations rotary and fixed-wing aviator, ATP, instructor pilot, instrument examiner, aviation mission survivability officer, and aviation safety officer. He is also a trained military and civil aviation accident investigator. He is currently fortunate enough to fly helicopter air ambulance ops with some amazing medical professionals in Virginia and still dabbles in airplanes with his local flying club.

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