Friday, April 22, 2016

The Problem With Flying a V-22 In The Service of Our Country...

I was contacted by a V-22 pilot who is interested in flying civilian HEMS/HAA. He wanted help getting a job, and I feel obligated to help other pilots when I can, as others helped me.

As I am learning about this powered-lift "catch-22," it becomes apparent that this problem needs attention from the Federal Aviation Administration. A V-22 pilot can fly a machine that can behave like a helicopter - or - an airplane! But their skills and experience are not recognized as such.

catch-22 (a phrase from a 60's era film)
  1. a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

So here's the thing. A pilot who demonstrates exceptional skill during military training - and is able fly both as an airplane pilot AND a helicopter pilot - gets credit for neither skill upon separating from military service. This will tend to discourage the best pilots from entering the powered-lift arena, and will hurt the United States' military. If V-22 time is worthless to a pilot who might want to fly for either Delta OR Air Methods, no pilot will want to do it. There aren't many, if any, powered-lift jobs in the civilian sector. 

Clearly, the FAA needs to remedy this situation. Helicopter flight requires a skill-set distinct from airplane flight. The first thing that comes to mind is dealing with the torque reaction from applying power to a rotor system. And then there is hovering... I was a Chinook pilot for 13 years. Chinooks don't react to torque, as the counter-rotating rotor systems cancel torque effects. In fact, a Chinook is so different from single rotor helicopters as to perhaps be considered a different category of aircraft... But it's not. It's a helicopter. A Chinook pilot's flight experience, gained in the military, is a marketable commodity upon separation. We may be a little slow in the toes at first but we figure out which pedal to push. A V-22 pilot is, at present, denied the ability to market her skills as either a helicopter pilot or an airplane pilot. And she has been both!

When a V-22 is hovering, it's a helicopter too. It resembles a Chinook, with a lateral rotor arrangement versus a tandem one. V-22 pilots have to learn all about the pitfalls of rotorcraft flying, like vortex-ring-state/settling with power, and retreating blade stall, and then they have to learn all about the peculiarities of fixed wing flight, like stalls and spins and minimum controllable airspeeds. 

Clearly, a V-22 pilot gets taught and tested on two separate categories of flying machine, and they get credit for neither. And this is going to mean that the only career-pilots who fly them will be the pilots who can't make the cut for a more marketable flying experience. 

I believe this is a problem that social-media can fix. Here's what to write in your emails and facebook posts to the FAA administrator...

Dear Mister Huerta, 

Please help. V-22 pilot time should count for both helicopter pilot time AND airplane pilot time, because these pilots have demonstrated that they can be both. Denying them credit for the skill-sets they have worked so hard to acquire isn't just unfair to them, it will adversely affect our military.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wisdom Trumps Luck... A Retrospective Case Study, Twenty Years On...

It was an absolutely beautiful day. The pilot, nurse, and paramedic were enroute in their progam's backup aircraft, a Bolkow BO-105. As they motored across the flat terrain near Houston, Texas, a new and different whining sound began to emanate from the machinery overhead. Bobby Wisdom, the pilot flying, looked over at the nurse sitting in the aft-facing co-pilot's seat and noticed that she was looking at him. She said, "what is that?"

"I don't know." But Bobby knew that the new sound wasn't good. His training took over and he immediately lowered the collective and began looking for a place to land. As he glanced across the nurse he saw a large field out her door. Then he swung his head to the right and found an even better option, a mall parking lot at three o'clock. He began a hard turn to the right, with the collective full-down. There was a loud bang. The caution panel lit up as if the test-button had been pressed. The panel was shaking violently making it hard to read the instruments.

In the turn, he wondered if he still had power from either engine, so he gently increased collective. The rotor bled down to 85% so he immediately returned the collective to the down-stop to save what rotor RPM he had. He thought the rotor RPM might come back up in the hard right turn, but it did not.

As Bobby rolled out on final, indications were that he had suffered a dual engine failure, and he had less than a full measure of stored rotor-energy to complete his autorotational landing. He adjusted the cyclic to avoid some light poles and then the woman appeared. Directly in his path, a mother pushed her baby carriage into the place he wanted to land.

Darn the Luck...

Bobby gently adjusted the controls to avoid hitting the mother and her baby, using a bit more of his rotor RPM and stored energy. The aircraft touched down and began to slide. And slide. And slide. Trees - dead ahead. After desperately wanting the aircraft to keep moving forward, he now desperately wanted it to stop.

Finally, stop it did.

Flames and smoke began to enter the cabin. Training took over. As all of us crew members know, the safest place to be in a helicopter that has just suffered an abnormal landing is inside. As bits and parts fly off, they tend to fly away from the aircraft. The unhinging can be extremely violent. The one caveat to the "stay inside until everything stops" mantra is that if it's burning - we better get out.

What we have to keep in mind at this point is that it would be a shame to live through the emergency landing and lose our head in the egress. Unfortunately, when we are scared to death, it's hard to keep anything in mind other than MOVE.

So Bobby's nurse opened her door, and exited the aircraft at a high rate of speed. She had her headset on, and as she was a few feet into her journey she came to the end of her cord, with a jerk. Off came the headset. As this was happening, the paramedic was "high-stepping" it to get away from the aircraft, Bobby's ingrained training and habit forced him to begin securing aircraft switches and controls. Then he realized that the aircraft was really burning...

A passerby on the highway was returning from a picture-taking trip in Hooks, Texas. He saw the helicopter drop into the parking lot and begin to burn. He stopped, got out of his car, and used the last seven frames of film in this camera to capture these dramatic images. You can see the headset hanging down below the cop-pilot's door.

What started as a localized fire quickly turned into a fully involved blaze. This demonstrates why it is absolutely vital that when there is any indication of fire on your aircraft you land immediately. You don't have much time after the fire begins.

The investigation revealed that the main transmission had been serviced and cleaned with a compound designed to remove deposits from the interior surfaces and oil passages. Some of the cleaning compound remained in the passages after maintenance was complete, and served to block the flow of oil to the input-bearings, where the drive-shaft from one of the engines entered the transmission. The whining sound was the bearings seizing, and the drive shaft broke in two. "Bang."

Displaying bofire1.jpg

As the sheared shaft and it's boot flailed around inside the engine bay, fragments of debris crossed through the firewall and "fragged" the other engine. I wrote a fictional blog-post about this happening in a twin-engine helicopter in the clouds.

That fictional story is here..."What If?"

While two engines do offer us a large margin of redundancy, and increase safety, we still must keep in mind that one exploding engine can take out it's partner sitting right next door. We must be ready and proficient at autorotations; straight-in autos. autos with turn, low-level autos, and autos requiring maneuvering to avoid hazards and humans. The trend towards less rather than more autorotation training is going to mean more people will be hurt or killed after losing one or both engines. This reality is playing out in newspaper stories month after month.

Operators point to the costs of damaging aircraft in training, and the low probability of engine failure. That's all fine and good until it's your engine that quits. If you have been paying attention to the media reports, helicopter engines have been failing quite regularly lately. Maybe we should revisit how we prepare pilots for engine failures. And maybe us pilots should stop flying the helicopter as if the engine or engines will never quit.

When I was being briefed on this event, the program's director of operations told me he took this pilot out the very next day and they did autorotation training. He said, "you have to get right back to it or your thoughts will give you trouble." Real quality training is worth the money spent...

Mr. Bobby Wisdom, Memorial Hermann Lifeflight Pilot, was recognized widely following this event. He was selected to be the National EMS Pilot's Association's (NEMSPA's) Pilot of the Year in 1996. This was and is a distinct honor, congratulations sir, and thank you for decades of safe service.

Bobby is still flying the line, still teaching, still sharing the Wisdom...

May it be ever so...

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Post From Blog-Contributor and Flight Nurse Josh Henke : You Can Say No!

This is an open letter to my peers, my cohort.
Open letters seem to the the soup of the day lately, so thats what I'm calling it,

Dear flight crews. You do not have to fly. Just because the badge on your chest denotes a Flight
nurse or Flight paramedic, this does not mean that you are tied to your aircraft. You are, at the end
of the day, a nurse and a paramedic. you can go by air, you can go by ground. You can go by
horse and buggy if that is the safest option (dear lord I want to do that just once), but you are not
tied to your aircraft.

Editors note - as depicted in Airbus Helicopter's excellent video, "That Others May Live," pilots, being humans, can get caught up in "driving forward, getting the job done, finishing the mission." We are susceptible to a sort of "mission intoxication," You may be the last line of defense against this. And it may mean you have to accept spending hours in a bus. That acceptance may save your life.

Back to Josh...

It reminds me of a saying from my wildfire days; “never fly unless you have to”. But the converse
also exists and should be held just as dearly; “you don’t have to fly.”

I read the NTSB preliminary report for the most recent fatal HEMS crash today. I took a few hours
to cool down, but I’m still many things about that accident. I'm sad. I’m appalled. I'm a little hot
under the collar, but mostly, I feel kind of guilty. I feel  that we may have let a group of our peers down. You might think I’m taking this a little personally, but let me explain.

I feel guilty because I get the impression that the flight crew didn't know, or didn't feel
comfortable saying no. How is this not a daily conversation between every flight crew member
on shift? How is this not a mantra; the very cornerstone of what we do? You can say no.

It seems hard, I get it. Especially you new people. You want to be a team player or maybe you
don't feel like you have the authority to say no. But i promise you, you can say no. And if you don’t think “no” is appropriate, try asking a question. If your pilot or partner can't give you a good answer, the next step is “no."

Lets try a scenario...

Nurse: "Hey pilot, that weather seems pretty low. I know I’m new here, but that just doesn't look

Pilot: “Its ok. i’ve done this a thousand times before. We’ll just climb up through the clouds, get
on top and be on our way.”

Nurse: “Don’t we need two engines and a lot more equipment to be able to do that safely?”

Pilot: “Seriously, it’s OK. were only 20 miles away. it'll be quick. Now hurry up, the weather is still
dropping and we need to go.”

Does this scenario make you comfortable?
The correct answer is this scenario should scare the hell out of you and make you double time it
to the ambulance to go by ground. You can say no.

If you think your company will fire you for saying no on scene or saying no to accepting a flight
then you need to find a new program. Anyone that is willing to sacrifice your life for a patients - or a paycheck) - and maybe both, does not deserve your time, your education, your skills or your loyalty.

You can say no.

But what about the pilot? I admit, its easy to look up to these guys. they've been zipping around
the skies for 5000+ hours. Probably longer than a lot of us have been alive and lots of them in
much more unforgiving arenas. That does not mean that you cannot question them if something
looks out of the norm. (Don’t yak their ear off for an entire flight questioning every decision, thats
a good way to get a grumpy pilot. Keep the big picture in mind.)

Pilots are people too, with a myriad of backgrounds. Some are comfortable flying at 300 ft all
night. Some come from a background with an entirely different mission focus. some are newer
than others. But at the end of the day, you are climbing in their aircraft, with them at the controls
and possibly a patient on board. If something doesn't look right, ask the question. If they can't
give you an educated, descriptive answer with a plan, its time to start thinking about no.

Lets try another example.

Nurse: “Hey pilot, were hovering kinda close to those mountains looking for this guy. i'm not
super comfortable with this.”

Pilot: “Nurse, i hear ya. I've got 5 disks away from the obstacle, the winds are calm. if
anything goes wrong i have a good escape route forward and left.  If you're still concerned, we
can abort, but i feel very comfortable in out present position.”

Nurse: “Ok, now that you explain it, I feel a lot better about it and our place for an emergency
should it arise. thanks”

That scenario? I feel pretty good about that, don’t you? If you're nervous, ask questions. If the answer isn't a good one, say no, or seek a better answer.

If the plan for for the flight goes against things you've been taught, say no.

You can say no.

Fly safely friends...

Josh with a former patient, now a lifetime friend. We can and do accomplish this job safely,
but it takes all of us, working together. HelicopterEMS.com