Helicopter pilots tend to plan for the worst–a mentality that goes hand in hand with having a (flight) plan B.
Helicopter pilots understand that maintaining a constant “escape” mentality is an essential survival skill that allows us to differentiate between bold pilots and old pilots. Most aspiring helicopter pilots who received top-tier flight instruction quickly learn to always visualize what they’ll do and where they’ll go in the event of a catastrophic system failure.
Every astute helicopter pilot (particularly those in single-engine aircraft) flying today is actively or subconsciously considering their first turn and subsequent flight path to the most suitable landing area within autorotational glide distance. By the time you read this sentence, most of those pilots likely will have shifted to another location at least once.
On High Alert
The contingency-plan mindset is particularly necessary in high-risk situations.
“It’s especially important to identify an escape route when operating at the edge of your aircraft’s performance envelope or in high-density altitudes,” says Dave Dziura, chief pilot for Colorado Heli-Ops and chair of HAI’s Safety Working Group. “If your landing site is confined, identify during the approach the altitude and location at which your escape route or go-around option will fall through—this is your commitment point.
“Practice a scan of your power margin, pedal position, and rate of descent prior to that point, to trigger the go-around if anything’s in question,” Dziura adds. “It’s crucial to ensure you have adequate margin, before the commitment point, for a loss of headwind or change in conditions as you descend below obstacles.”
The same holds true for takeoffs over an obstacle, Dziura says. In such cases, identify a point where you’ll abort the takeoff safely if you’re not clear of the obstacle. Practicing this plan of “escape” before executing the maneuver will pay off when it matters.
Put Safety Ahead of Your Ego
If you think that going around for a new approach or aborting a maneuver will make you look like a bad pilot, rethink your attitude. As Dziura wisely warns, arrogance has no place in the cockpit.
“Someone once told me the only reason not to go around when conditions aren’t ideal is ego. Keeping this in mind keeps me humble and prepared to put the safety of the operation ahead of the operation itself.”
Safety: Who Will Survive?
Given helicopter pilots’ well-earned reputation as aviators who plan for the worst, you’d think we’d have better success at preventing accidents. A quick review of our accident rates and common causal factors, however, suggests that, regrettably, we don’t.
Accident Prevention Still Falling Short
I share my industry colleagues’ frustrations in observing the trend of preventable global rotorcraft accidents. Despite our best efforts to reduce fatal accident rates through enhanced training, safety management systems, industry standards, best practices, safety culture, and so on, our goals appear to remain elusive. We know we must do something, but what we choose to do is a matter of some debate.
Here are some questions we must confront while promoting global rotorcraft safety through targeted accident-prevention efforts:
- Why must we continue to remind pilots to do the right thing?
- How do we make the business case for safety?
- Which safety promotion activities are the most effective?
- Will we ever reach the “unreachable” people in our profession, and how much time should we invest in attempting to do so?
I don’t claim to have the best answers to these questions. I do know, however, that pilots and mechanics/engineers don’t purposefully set out to crash their aircraft. Rather, they fail to acknowledge an insidious chain of errors and omissions and miss the one final opportunity to break it. Despite our inherent pessimism, we unwittingly fall prey to the human condition.
A Matter of Survival
Our industry faces growing existential threats from many fronts, including community opposition and overregulation. Whether fairly or unfairly, our safety performance is being judged—and we’ve been found wanting. Each helicopter crash, while often tragic in its own right, also erodes the trust of the public we serve, and regulators must answer to them.
I’m honored to join the growing number of global aviation safety professionals in HAI’s working groups, the Vertical Aviation Safety Team, and the US Helicopter Safety Team who remain undeterred. In an industry necessarily filled with pessimists, we choose to remain optimistic about our ability to prevent accidents.
And we’ll continue to carry the torch and promote critical safety initiatives to support the survival of our industry.
– Chris Hill