Like most of us, I have lost many friends to helicopter crashes over the years. Some losses hit harder than others; some cut right to the bone. My first brush with tragedy took place in Honduras in 1988. We had flown an aircraft down from Fort Bragg, other crews joined us out of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. Personalities being what they are, one of the Warrant Officer pilots from Hunter decided that he wasn't going to fly with his platoon leader another day, and announced a crew change over beers while watching the enlisted guys play volleyball.
As my LT. Alan Urban was an agreeable sort, and my crew was, well, my crew, I protested the change. The trip officer-in-charge laughed about all this and said, "well Mr. Foulds, it looks like Randy has pulled rank on you (he was a -3, I was a -2). The next day Randy Potter took my helicopter, my platoon leader, and my crew, and flew off to the north.
I went south with his crew and the aforementioned Captain. While finishing up some work at Tiger Island, we got a call from HQ asking about our status and position. They instructed us to return to base immediately. My aircraft, without me on board, had crashed. Everyone was dead. It was hard.
Gravity waits patiently for technology to fail.
A few years later, a crew I knew well flew into a tower in Iraq. The wife of a fellow Nightstalker was on board, and while it shouldn't matter that it was a pretty young girl named Marie Rossi versus a guy who died in that seat - along with everyone else on board - it did. It was devastating.
Not long after that, my room-mate from flight school, Pierre Desroches, was performing an assessment on a candidate for duty in the 160th. Riding along with Pierre and the assessee was the smartest Chinook pilot I ever met, Wally Fox. After having the assessee perform an NVG route to an objective, they were returning to Campbell Army Airfield, and setting up for a practice instrument approach. Campbell approach control gave them a vector towards the airport, and the aircraft fell to the earth - all aboard were killed. This was a human-factors crash, involving instrument design and information display, but that's a story for another day.
Then Curt, a young officer I met through a friend - and who stayed at my house with his girlfriend - and an entire crew flew into the water near the Philippines. I heard that Curt's voice was on the recorder, calmly calling out the radar altitude from the jump seat as the aircraft descended to it's destruction. That crash took a lot of old legends, and young Curt Feistner who threw hoops with my sons.
And then there was the battle loss of a friend that I assessed myself, and was hard on. Chris Scherkenbach and I were buddies, and when he volunteered, and I assessed him, and determined that his performance was sub-standard, it put me in an uncomfortable position. And he got reamed by the board. Then he turned himself into one of the most squared-away Warrant Officers ever. But that didn't keep him from getting shot down and killed with his crew on a hilltop in Afghanistan while trying to rescue a SEAL team in trouble.
By this point, I had become a little bit numb about Chinook crashes. And fatalistic; as in, if it's gonna happen it's gonna happen and there is nothing I can do about it. I was now flying EMS helicopters, and they fell out of the sky just as readily as the army ships had.
We figured out the hard way that a visual-flight-rules helo has no business flying into the clouds at low level at night (or during the day for that matter), or into icing conditions (a lesson that must be relearned periodically). We also learned that you should not disconnect a warning light in the field and attempt to fly the aircraft back to the base after - by the Grace of God - sending the crew and patient by ground. A poor fellow and his crew in Texas proved that the tension/torsion strap-packs that hold BK blades on aren't really lifetime parts after all. He was the age then that I am now, and I think about him often. We learn lessons, and forget them, and people keep dying.
And then there was Pat. When he and his crew flew into a storm near Georgetown, SC in 2009, and my wife, a nurse on the Lifestar ship in Savannah, came home and woke me up to tell me about it, I got mad.
I thought, Enough Already! Then I decided to do something. I started travelling around the country for my company and talking to people about what causes these accidents. You see, in most cases it's possible to determine what was going on, even without the benefit of a voice-recorder which airplanes have and helicopters should. It's usually one or a few of the same old things over and over again. So I talk to crews, and we study accidents and look for patterns. I want them to be able to recognize a pattern when they are in one, and stop it. I know that Earnest K. Gann told us that "Fate is the Hunter", and to be sure, there is an element of luck in all this - but I believe we can often make our own luck.
I started teaching AMRM with the Lifeline crews in Indiana, when Pat's crash was still a raw scar on my psyche; to the point that I would have to stop talking and collect myself. Pat took a risk, but Diana and Claxton were just along for the ride, and didn't know what to say, or what questions to ask. It was during one of these pauses for self-collection that a soft voice in the room spoke - "keep preaching the gospel brother." Yes ma'am. I will. I never forget that maybe - just maybe - someone in the room with me is going to prevent the next big crash - if - I can say the right words in the right way, and convey understanding. I show people what happens when we turn our backs on common sense and conventional wisdom.
Rooms become very quiet during these discussions of warm, living, loving people coming to a massive crashing end. And most people understand. Some pilots want medical crew members to get in, sit back, and shut up. These attitudes are shaped by experience, and lead to inappropriate behavours. While I would hope that a pilot could buy into the tenets of crew-resource management, I would also hope that the crewmembers would as well. There are bad apples in all the baskets.
Way back in 1985 I was taught the real meaning of crew-resource management and crew coordination by smart, kind, wise chinook crew-chiefs and flight engineers. These guys knew a lot about helicopters, and pilots, and they would take the time to impart wisdom to keep us all alive.
(Believe it or not, in many cases when a Chinook is doing it's mission, the pilot is following the instructions of the crew chief, who is where the work is being done. This experience breaks down the pilot-crew barrier very well, and creates a synergistic effect.)
In our industry, there are a lot of smart people flying in EMS helicopters. And some trouble-makers. A challenge for leaders is to determine who is causing trouble, straighten them out, or show them the door. Yes this is hard, yes this takes work, and if you are a leader this is your job. Trust me, it's better than answering questions from the media about your recent fatal accident...
The challenge for all of us is to re-dedicate ourselves to being and doing our best, every shift, so that we don't become the topic of someone else's safety briefing. Safe operations depend on effective crew coordination (enhanced by teamwork), situational awareness (enhanced by teamwork), appropriate monitoring and checking (enhanced by teamwork), and the identification and elimination of inappropriate attitudes (enhanced by teamwork). Do you see a pattern?
Using all the brains available only makes sense, and the answer to a problem can come from an unexpected source. Sometimes the dumbest person in the room saves the day...
Anyway, if you are still with me, thanks. I have been granted the privilege of an opportunity to make my case as a presenter at the next Air Medical Transport Conference, to be held this October in Virginia Beach.
If you fly sick people to the hospital, I hope to see you there, smiling and well. Together, we can fix this.