Thursday, January 7, 2016

Two Rotors at the Hospital... by Survivor's Network Co-founder Megan Hamilton

The other day, I noticed two different programs had helicopters on my hospital’s roof top helipad. What I saw was interesting. Two completely different takeoffs. It made me think and it also made me ask why? If I had to choose, I definitely knew which aircraft I would fly in….or rather, which pilot I would fly with.

I recently read a very good blog posting on-line by Dan Foulds. The link is here: http://helicopterems.blogspot.com/2015/12/hoisted-on-my-own-petard.html?m=1

The gist of Dan’s blog was about flying defensively rather than taking it for granted that everything will be just fine between point A and point B. Most don’t fly thinking, “What if the motor quits?” It’s very similar to how many people drive down the roads as if nothing can happen or will happen. Maybe it's just me who drives a little defensively… maybe it’s simply too many traumas I’ve been to and cared for in my career that has made me who I am.

I can tell you with absolute certainty and personal experience from the back seat of a helicopter that engines do fail catastrophically. I can tell you my pilot flew differently after that crash. And that he was a great pilot to fly with before that night. It’s just different after an experience like that.

I think back to when I first started flying. I flew with a relief pilot who started higher than usual for very long and painfully slow short finals. In a BK, that’s a lot of shaking going on. I wondered why, but maybe in my naivete I didn’t think to ask why. Then I found out why. He once had an engine failure on short final. He was simply improving his margin for a successful outcome should it happen again. He flew defensively. It was also during those early days of flying that I learned why pilots do Category A takeoffs. This was reinforced at nearly every LZ class we taught. Inevitably, some firefighter or LEO would ask about why we wanted them to hold the LZ secure after we lifted and were clear of the scene. Every pilot and crew member answered it consistently with the same explanation

So back to the other day and the two drastically different takeoffs I witnessed. The first helicopter lifted, gained that 15-20 feet of altitude to simply clear obvious obstacles, and then did that drop-the-nose-down-while-flying-forward takeoff. A minute passed and the second helicopter lifted, turned slightly into the wind and then did a beautiful Cat A takeoff.

I wondered what the pilot and crew in each helicopter were thinking. I hope the second crew took notice of the different takeoff next to them. I hope they discussed it post-flight. I find myself wondering if the first crew ever knew that what their pilot did was different or is it their normal takeoff? A normal takeoff from a safe helipad?? I wonder if the first crew was ever taught about takeoffs and landings. I wonder if they think engines will never quit. I hope they will speak up and ask.

Photo credit: Megan Hamilton

Megan Hamilton – Co-founder of the Survivors Network

To learn more about "Category A" takeoffs - and landings - click here.


  1. I am wondering what Ms Hamilton's aviation qualifications are?

    1. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Although we don't know for sure, we suspect Megan's qualifications are limited to patient care. Having said that, she has lived through a catastrophic event in a helicopter, which led her to volunteer her time and energy on behalf of other crash-survivors. Hopefully you don't think that because a clinician has no aviation-related qualifications, that they have no right to an opinion about how aviation operations are conducted. And hopefully you won't let the rare clinical trouble-maker color your opinion of all clinicians. Human beings make mistakes, and pilots are human. We believe that HEMS operations are most successful when everyone involved works together, putting successful and safe operations ahead of personal agendas... Is this idealistic? Sure. Are there toxic programs, undoubtedly. That doesn't change what is right - in our opinion. That doesn't change which way our moral compass should be pointing.

      As is said in the 160th SOAR, "come on in and join the fun, and leave your ego at the door." Or, to put this another way, we pilots can't be so thin-skinned as to take offense at questions from the crew. Their is always the possibility that they may be right and we may be wrong. Wouldn't it be a shame to shut someone down so that they sit back and watch one of us make a mistake that could damage an aircraft or hurt a human.

      Frequently the toughest questions for how and why a Nightstalker did what he did come from persons who have no aviation training at all, like Navy Seals, Army Rangers and Special Forces. Sometimes a simple explanation clears the air, and sometime additional insight leads to the pilot deriving a new technique. Please consider this, in HEMS, our "precious cargo" consists of the medical crew who share our cabin. Our actions are all about keeping them alive. Although it may be counter-intuitive, I think we should focus on keeping them alive and let them worry about the patient. In Army Special Operations the objective was to get the shooters to the target so that they could kill the bad guys and rescue the good guys. We didn't accomplish the mission. We enabled their mission accomplishment. We at HelicopterEMS feel much the same about HEMS. Pilots get the crew to the patient by air, and then they get the crew and the crew's precious cargo to definitive care by air. But they only do this if it can be done with a low and acceptable level or risk.
      Thanks for all you do...

  2. This post has circulated in the aviation sector like fire. There is nothing more insane than a person without necessary experience post about something they are not qualified to do so. I'm not going to post without research so I did. The pilot that Hamilton praises for the "safe" landing in the crash she was involved in is also the person at fault. He failed to put oil in the aircraft therefor putting lives at risk. The pilot that Hamilton criticizes in this article is a 30 year veteran, awarded for a safe landing after taking fire in Iraq which saved 10 lives, he was praise by John McCain, and in the top 1% of ALL army aviation. Maybe a little more research needed to be done before you post your articles Mr Foulds. Not all opinions are valid and you have given a platform to bash a true American Hero. Well done, sir.

    1. Hello friend, I can tell you are upset and I am sorry fotr that. We can certainly have a discussion about your concerns, but first you have to tell us who we are talking to. This isn't the forum, we are real people with real concerns who identify themselves. This blog is bigger than me. It is yours too, and Megan's. Megan's opinions are valid and worthy of discussion. I am proud to have offered her a platform on which to tell her story. I don't think Megan had any malicious intentions by writing what she did - she has questions. I also want to say that I have tremendous admiration for the pilot you describe in your comment. If he feels slighted, I am here ready to listen to him. If you or he want to communicate offline, send me a message, foulds.daniel@gmail.com. HEMS has too much anger, and too much distrust. Let's sort this out... And for the record I have flown aircraft that simply did not have enough power to make a takeoff that was in any way vertical. I have barely made it off a roof many times.


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.