HAI/Felipe A. Galvez photo
High-risk ops require a deep focus on risk mitigation to help ensure a safe outcome.
Risk mitigation is a crucial step in any helicopter operation. High-risk operations, by virtue of the name, carry a higher-than-usual number of potential hazards and require a deep focus on risk mitigation to help ensure a safe outcome. Operators conducting tricky canyon rescues, flying skiers to fresh snow, building a transmission tower, and the like succeed when they take time to identify and mitigate possible hazards and make educated decisions regarding risk with all the players involved.
Below are five valuable dos and don’ts about risk mitigation, gathered in part from heli-ski operator Powderbird, which works in and around the mountains of Utah performing skiing and avalanche control in the winter and firefighting in the summer.
1. DO a thorough pre-mission risk assessment.
Before conducting a preflight inspection, take a close look at every possible element of the flight activity, even if it’s one your operation does regularly. This includes evaluating current and anticipated weather during all phases of the operation. What’s the visibility? Will there be glare or brightout? Is there an inversion that can bring clouds up from the canyons quickly? Where’s the wind? Will there be mechanical or convective turbulence? Consider the hazards of the landing and operating areas, and identify potential emergency landing sites, again identifying possible hazards. Is this an avalanche/rockslide zone? Is there adequate main- and tail-rotor clearance? If landing in snow, how are the snow conditions? Can the helicopter land on top of the snow or will it sink? If landing at altitude, how’s the density altitude that day? Can the aircraft operate safely within the hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) ceiling at the required weight with fuel, passengers, and equipment? If not, what mitigations can you implement? By carefully reviewing every aspect of the flight and potential dangers, you can plan for mitigating each related risk.
2. DON’T exclude any team members.
A full risk assessment must include every participant in the flight and supporting activities. If you have government agencies, customers, and/or subcontractors involved, include them in hazard identification and risk assessment. What are their teams’ experience? What equipment not in the helicopter operator’s control will be involved? What are the potential risks involved with that equipment? What items have they considered that you might have overlooked? These team members, who include not only those participating directly in the flight but also those with auxiliary insight, such as maintenance techs, dispatchers, and executives (the latter of whom are instrumental in understanding and supporting safety decision-making for the mission), will have their own unique insights about risks and potential mitigation solutions. Ensuring that all who have a hand in the operation are involved in risk identification and mitigation significantly boosts safety on any flight.
3. DO mitigate each risk.
With the risks identified, carefully review each one for mitigation strategies. In some cases, a plan for one risk can help lower others. However, beware of instances in which mitigating one risk can uncover an entirely new hazard. In an ideal world, every risk would be mitigated to green, clearing the way for smooth sailing. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, a safety-conscious operation will bring in every participant to discuss and agree on mitigation options that will lower the residual risk to a level considered as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). At this point, the residual risk is acceptable and the flight can be deemed safe to proceed. But first, review the mission’s overall risk again, keeping in mind how mitigations can affect each other.
4. DON’T overlook best practices.
In this day and age, chances are someone has executed an operation much like the one you’re about to perform. Even if you’ve performed a flight like this in the past, take the time to look up best practices and lessons learned from other operators—they’re always changing for the better. Operators who research and formally adopt global best practices for risk mitigation and safety greatly reduce their risks. HAI is a good source of information on best practices. Operators can visit rotor.org/safety for resources, safety tools, and HAI safety programs. Additional resources include the US Helicopter Safety Team (ushst.org) and the Vertical Aviation Safety Team (vast.aero).
5. DO perform pre-mission planning.
Once the team has identified every possible flight risk, gather with everyone involved in the mission—pilots, controllers, linepeople, ground crews, and any others—and carefully go through every step of the plan. Visual aids such as maps and photographs are exceptionally valuable here, in case anyone is unclear of exactly where the various actions during the flight will take place. During this planning period, discuss the weather and the identified risks that might occur along the way. Make sure everyone has a thorough understanding of the whole flight operation, including points throughout the trip where go/no-go decisions to continue or discontinue the flight will be made. Always dedicate time for questions and be sure to answer them all before departing.
Thanks to Kevin O’Rourke, VP of operations at Alta, Utah–based Powderbird. O’Rourke shared how his company mitigates risk in the Mar. 4, 2021, HAI@Work webinar “Mitigating High-Risk Operations.” A veteran of mountain operations, O’Rourke shares in the webinar how his team walks through a mission and identifies and mitigates risk.