Photo above: iStock/jacoblund
Helicopter pilots tend to plan for the worst—a mentality that goes hand in hand with having an escape route.
Helicopter pilots understand that nothing short of a pathologically constant “escape” mentality is an essential survival skill that allows us to differentiate between bold pilots and old pilots.
Most aspiring helicopter pilots who’ve received top-tier flight instruction quickly learned 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.
For better or worse, we pilots proudly acknowledge our persistent operating paranoia, which the late journalist Harry Reasoner captured when he penned the now-famous description of our heroic predecessors, Vietnam-era helicopter pilots, as “brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble.”
In keeping with this portrayal, in this month’s Spotlight on Safety (SOS) video message, Dave Dziura, chief pilot for Colorado Heli-Ops and newly elected chair of HAI’s Safety Working Group, offers some sound advice about flying: always leave an escape route! Our related SOS poster creatively illustrates the same points Dave presents in his video, which essentially encourages pessimism during approach planning and execution.
Many of us consider Reasoner’s characterization of helicopter pilots a badge of honor. Yet, given our well-earned reputation for planning 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 suggests, regrettably, that we don’t.
I share my industry colleagues’ frustrations when observing the trend of preventable global rotorcraft accidents. Despite our best efforts to reduce fatal accident rates through enhanced training, safety management systems (SMSs), 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?
- What are the most effective safety promotion activities?
- 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 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.
So how do we channel that pessimism to help make our industry safer?
Planning for the worst entails more than having a safety risk management conversation during preflight or aerial work. It’s integral to business risk management. Smart organizations already do it because they’ve figured out how to improve the bottom line.
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 our HAI working groups, the Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST), the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), and the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST) who remain undeterred. We choose to remain optimistic in an industry necessarily filled with pessimists to support accident prevention.
And we’ll continue to carry the torch and promote critical safety initiatives to help support our industry’s survival.