Monday, December 28, 2015

Hoisted On My Own Petard...

It's one thing to know what's right...

          It's another thing to say what's right...

                       But it's another thing entirely to fly right...

                                                This is the main thing...

I was flying at two thousand feet from a metropolitan-area hospital back to my base at a small hospital in the country. It was a beautiful day and all was well with the world. During a break in the conversation, and after a few seconds of silence, my paramedic asked, "hey Dan, where would we go if the motor quit right now?" 

And I put him up to it...

Here's the back story;  after a friend flew a helicopter into a storm and killed his crew, I volunteered to present AMRM training for my company. I studied crashes in all segments of rotor and fixed wing flying, looking for the "why," and how to avoid repeating the mistakes. What I found was that crashes usually happen because of mistakes that can be identified and prevented. The mistakes are right there for us to discuss; the folks who made them paid a terrible price. Read, do not repeat.

Working as a relief pilot allowed me to go around to different bases and focus on human factors during shift briefings. I look at some young man or woman and wonder - is there something I could say here today that will save their lives?

I was moved from a BK-117, to an EC -135, then to an Astar. Single engine aircraft are reliable, but engines do fail. From observing many of my peers, and myself, I realized that many of us pilots fly our helicopters as if the engine will never quit. We don't often fly "defensively." We hop into the machine, load coordinates, and push "direct-to." And we usually fly an altitude out of habit, without much thought to what we are flying over. 

An anecdote: I was filling in at Stuart, Florida. As we prepared to cross over a river in an Astar, I climbed steadily to 1500 feet, and altitude that I judged would let me reach a shoreline in the event the motor quit. One of my paramedics joked to his partner,"okay Brett, your job is to look out for airliners." I didn't get the joke. I asked, "what are you talking about?" He explained that I was flying much higher over the river than the other pilots did. I asked, "how high do they fly?" 

"Oh, about 500 feet..."

That aircraft had no floats...

Pilot's flying at 500 feet over water aren't thinking about the motor quitting. I understand that some jobs in single-engine helicopters require operating at airspeeds and altitudes such that an engine failure is going to hurt. And I know that engines are reliable.

But I wonder why we accept risk needlessly.

In truth, most of us single-engine pilots aren't given much chance to become proficient at autorotations.  Maybe we should stack the deck in our favor with...


Salient points in this video are made at 3:22 and 6:02. "Today's the day..."

The over water issue became a big thing a couple of years after that crew and I had that discussion. Nowdays, no one is flying a single without floats at low altitudes that won't allow us to reach shore should the motor quit.

This is a tour Astar. It lost power in flight with tourists on board. There was a
place to land, a narrow strip of beach, between rocky wooded terrain and water
and everything worked well. Kudos to this pilot for being ready. Not all are.

The FAA thinks that we are operating our single engine helicopters - at any time - such that an engine failure can be safely terminated with an autorotation. That's why they let us fly patients at night in a single.

Code of Federal Regulations, Part 91, explains that our altitude should allow a landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface. What about the persons and property on board the helicopter? Shouldn't we be concerned about them too? The fact that the weather minimums will allow you fly at very low altitudes doesn't mean you must. Your personal minimums can account for the fact that your motor might quit and you might have to land right now. If the weather won't allow you to fly at an altitude at which you are confident of a safe landing, maybe you should not go...

 We should fly defensively.

So, back to my team member and his question. I ask teams to "inquire, advocate, and assert" during my shift briefings. And one of my often-recommended questions for a team to ask a pilot is, "hey, if the motor quits right now, where are we going?

So Wes asked the question of me, at two thousand feet on a beautiful day. I looked down and saw nothing but a broad green carpet of 50 foot pine trees, with no clear spots that I could hope to reach in the event of a power-failure. See, my "direct-to" course took me over terrain which would not be kind to an autorotating pilot and crew, and I was just following the GPS.

He had me.

Maybe we should give more thought to our route (is there a place to land?) and altitude (can I reach that place?) And maybe you crew members should get more involved in discussions about this. After all, if your motor goes bang in the night and drops you into hostile terrain with no place to land - it will suck.

The question for you single-engine pilots is; after losing power from your one motor, are you going to be just another dead pilot, or are you going to be the Chester "Sully" Sullenberger of Helicopter EMS? You know what Sully had going for him when all his engines quit?


May your engine never quit - and may you be ready when it does...

Engines do fail. If  the oil-pressurre light comes on, it's best to stop flying.

                                                                                                  edited, January 29th 2017, tightening.


  1. Very Well said. I myself do not work on AN EMS helicopter but I have done ride along and have some very dear friends that do work on the Helicopters and this article really hits home.

    Lt K. Roberts
    South Carolina

  2. As an old paramedic I have found the subject of CRM fascinating ever since I attended a class taught by Michelle North. Later I attended the AMRM train the trainer class at AMTC in Austin. I do appreciate your views on water crossing. I used to ask to go around rather than over lakes here in Kansas. I really didn't like the thought of swimming out, at night, in winter, well, anytime. Thanks for the article.

    1. Monty, I wish I could have met Michelle. I understand she was a great person and a tireless advocate for HEMS safety.

  3. I have been flying for 26 years in the military and 8 in EMS. I have picked up a survivor from an HEMS crash and left two friends there on the ground. I read and read articles like this dating back for years but we are still flying single engine basically just talking but making no real progress. Lets find a way to get people how can help to listen and lets change things for the better. I believe if the FAA required HEMS to fly duel engine, IFR certified helicopters, with a payload of at least 500 lbs. we could significantly but the accident rate in EMS. Randy Mains wrote just this in an article in 2008.

    1. Hi Jay, Thanks very much for taking the time to stop by and provide your thoughts. I appreciate your experience and service to our nation and to ill and injured persons. I think your experience of landing at a HEMS crash would do exactly what you want to do - get people's attention. NEMSPA is the avenue for HEMS pilots to express opinions about what direction we should be going in. If you are a member, great, and let the president and other board members know how you feel. If not, please consider joining us. Thanks again for taking the time to comment...


Tell us what you think. If you are involved in helicopter emergency medical services / air ambulances, this is your community. Please refrain from posting profanity, or comments that might be considered libelous or slanderous.