Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Guidance From Above...

Dan , I’m 48 years old. I’ve flown in excess of 10,000 hours. His arm still rests behind my back on every flight.

Last week, I had an epiphany. As an Air Medical Resource Management instructor for the last ten years, I have been putting out information about a well-defined hazardous attitude threatening the human-variety of pilot since manned-flight began.


My standard spiel revolves around the threat of an impulsive response to a suddenly-developing problem. Say one of your two engines catches on fire, and you see a fire-light in the cockpit. You exclaim, "crap, we gotta fire on two!" and you reach forward and smartly pull the number one engine's fire-control handle and shut that engine's fuel valve. Now you have two problems instead of one. It's happened more than once.

Acting on impulse in an emergency situation often makes a bad situation much much worse. Better to announce what you think is happening, take a deep breath, and devise (and announce) a response. "I'm looking at a fire light on the number two engine. Crew, prepare for an emergency landing and tell me if you see any other indications of us being on fire. I am going to slow down to single engine speed and put my hand on the number two fire control handle. I've confirmed the light and the handle. You see smoke. I'm pulling it."

So that's one type of threat from acting on impulse, and an example of how to fight that urge. But there's another threat of acting on impulse. Consider a beautiful day and a perfectly operating helicopter and a pilot who has an impulse to "have a little fun." This type of impulse has killed a crowd of crews too. In our industry, the most recent event took place in the Superstition Mountains. The Air Force suffered a famous and now iconic tragedy involving a B-52. And then they lost a C-17. It happens. We have to be on the lookout for it. Within ourselves and each other. Impulsivity, in any form, is bad.

So I sat down and wrote the next "Focus on Safety" column for Vertical Valor Magazine. I titled it "Neither Willful Nor Thrillful Be." And as I sometimes do with a draft, I sent it to a friend to review. This one went to Miles Dunagan, HEMS pilot and president of the National EMS Pilots Association. He's a good sounding board.

He wrote back.

"Hi Dan,

It’s always Great to hear from you!

I like it. I believe it is prevalent. I’m afraid it will always be in our business. While reading, my thoughts went directly to my pals I’ve lost. None were seeking a thrill, but their desire to achieve an outcome took them farther into the danger zone where we allow our judgment to--not necessarily be absent--but perhaps just slow to surface when we face hazards that were unexpected.

My dad and I talked about it. Of course this was before the dementia took so much from him. (Hard to believe he’s been gone a year)I simply asked him.”Dad how did y’all do it back in 1970-71?”. What were your minimums? His response, “we really didn’t have any son”. Then how did you do it I asked? He shrugged his shoulders and talked about that feeling when your hair on the back of your head starts to stick up, it’s time to turn around. I said Dad, that’s too late! He admitted that I was correct, and that he was lucky. We’ve came a long way, but that desire to produce good outcomes was powerful in 1970, and still is 50 years later.

The desire for the thrill can be overwhelming. I remember being a young pilot. I remember flying with my dad during those mid teens in an Astar. When I got my private, my dad let me swap to the right seat and he went in the left. We had the high back seats. My dad would put his right arm on the back of my chair. Kind like an arm rest. During these informative years, my dad watched me like a hawk. As these were often empty legs, I remember many times setting up for a departure. I would climb out and get set up for cruise and now we’re getting somewhere. Then , it seemed like my weakest suit was setting up for our approach for landing. I would make my turn around the LZ, assess winds, look for wires, and here we go. Dad had been instructing since the 60s. He was pretty good. He would let me make mistakes. He would allow me to get set up and start my approach. I would be lined up for what I judged as the perfect approach path and then it would happen. That right arm that was resting on the back of my chair would come to life and he would pop me on the back of my head. I would execute a go around and he would ask me 'what was wrong with that approach son?' I would look and see a pole (wire) that I had missed because I got in a hurry and was careless. Or I would re-assess the wind and realize I had lined up down wind. Believe it or not, these are great memories. I can’t help but tear up remember them.

Dan , I’m 48 years old. I’ve flown in excess of 10,000 hours. My dad's arm still rests behind my back on every flight. It makes me take an extra look. It makes me review a chart one more time. It motivates me to ask questions as we are circling a scene or a pad I’ve landed at countless times.

I can relate to your story of being thrillful my friend. Something tells me that the  Blackhawk pilot who thought enough of you to expose your shortcoming in judgement before that Black Cat departure all those years ago was riding with you from that day forward.  (added: yep!)

All this doesn’t mean we’ve never made mistakes flying. It just means we've had a little different perspective than those who let bravado and macho attitudes creep into the cockpit with them...

Sorry to ramble my friend.

Thanks for sharing.

Very Respectfully,


About Miles Dunagan's dad...

"Dad was one of the original 6 pilots to start the Memphis Police Aviation unit in 1969. He flew full time, then later as a reserve. He held an ATP and was a DPE for 14 years."

In the Army, we call a guy like that "the long pole in the tent." Today, he has been gone a year. May God continue to bless Mr. Dunagan's soul and comfort his son Miles Dunagan