Human factors and visual illusions can fool the eye and lead to disaster. Proper training can counter these hazards to enable pilots to survive—and thrive—in low-altitude conditions.
Want to hear something really scary?
Up to 70% of pilots who experience a wire strike during aerial spraying operations knew the wires were there but hit them anyway, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA).
For decades, HAI and a host of other industry safety advocates have emphasized the importance of wire-hazard awareness, avoidance, and protection. But fatal wire-strike accidents continue to plague the helicopter industry, particularly for those who routinely operate in the wire-and-obstruction environment.
Full disclosure: I have an elevated interest in reducing wire-strike events. I, too, failed to notice a strand of wires very early in my flying career, but, fortunately, I lived to share the lessons I learned from that unfortunate experience.
So what gives?
If you think pilots who hit the same wires after successfully avoiding them must be blind, you’re on the right track.
If you think your flawless vision alone would prevent you from making the same mistake, you have a lot to learn.
But don’t just take my word for it! Robert Feerst, president of Utilities / Aviation Specialists, has over 40 years of experience in utility flight operations and training. His company is on a mission to ensure that every pilot is keenly aware of low-altitude flight hazards and the proven tactics they need to survive and thrive in that environment.
When I asked Feerst about the primary message in his training, he emphasized that there’s a science to all of this, as we explain in this month’s Spotlight on Safety (poster above, video right). “If you rely only on your vision to stay clear of wires, you’re an accident waiting to happen,” Feerst told me. He described the human factors and visual illusions that are often at play—things like short-term memory loss, wire blindness, and terrestrial association. These and other related factors regrettably have tricked, and will continue to trick, the brains of even the most seasoned pilots into fatal outcomes.
Thankfully, there’s a simple solution—education.
For more than two decades, Feerst and his team have shared lifesaving knowledge about human physiology, environmental factors, and electrical hazards that every pilot must know to operate safely and effectively in this unforgiving environment. The feedback he gets from some of the most experienced and skeptical pilots is noteworthy.
“They start out with their arms folded and a scowl on their face,” says Feerst. “But by the time they’ve completed the training, many of them are praising it as ‘the best safety course I’ve ever taken,’ or even embarrassingly admit, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t already know this stuff!’ ”
So, if you, too, thought you knew everything there was to know about the hazards and science of low-altitude flight, I trust we’ve sparked your interest to learn a bit more. I encourage you to explore the resources and links below before you begin your next descent into the terribly tangled and sometimes scary web of wires and obstructions.
1. Take the “Flying in the Wire-and-Obstruction Environment” course, presented by Utilities / Aviation Specialists:
- The course will be available at HAI HELI-EXPO 2024, Feb. 26–29 (exhibits open Feb. 27–29), in Anaheim, California. To register, go to heliexpo.com and click on the “Education” tab. Part 1 will be offered on Feb. 25 and Part 2 on Feb. 26. Each part will run from 8 am to 5 pm, and significant discounts are available to HAI members.
- The National Agricultural Aviation Association will offer the course during the organization’s 2023 annual convention, Dec. 4–7, in Palm Springs, California. “Over 200 pilots completed our first on-site course at Ag Aviation Expo in 2022, and the feedback from our members was overwhelmingly positive,” says Scott Bretthauer, NAAA’s director of policy, education, and safety. “This is a must-attend course for pilots of all levels of experience.” To attend the 2023 Ag Aviation Expo and complete the on-site course tailored to the ag operator community, visit agaviation.org.
- To explore other options, go directly to the source: Utilities / Aviation Specialists. To see all their courses, including online options, go to helicoptersafety.com and click on the “Training” tab.
2. Download legacy HAI/USAIG (United States Aircraft Insurance Group) safety posters as well as wire-hazard videos, posters, and articles from HAI’s Spotlight on Safety series as reminders to keep in your hangar, shop, and break rooms. And below, check out these posters about wire-strike prevention from the HAI/USAIG legacy series and the Spotlight on Safety campaign. Just click on the link embedded in each image to view the poster in a larger, downloadable format: