Saturday, October 28, 2023

All the Kings Horses and All the Kings Men…

(This article originally appeared as a safety column submission in Vertical Valor/911. I reshare it here in the hope that it may offer some benefit to the HEMS industry. DCF)

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.

People just like us died here. Ask yourself, 
"what were they thinking?"

My friend Marcus called it. We sat at the NEMSPA booth at the Heli-Expo trade show, and as I discussed our near year-long stretch of fatality-free helicopter-emergency-medical services flying, he said, "you know Dan, there will be more fatal crashes, you know that, right?"

Sadly, he was to be proven right.

But why? Why must we take it for granted that some number of us will be killed each year? Why can't we emulate Delta, or American, or any other large air carrier? They haven't killed a passenger or crew in a long time. What is it that they do that we don't? 

Is it their equipment? Is it their training? Is it because they have two pilots and we in HEMS overwhelmingly have one? I don't think so. I think the reason the larger airlines are so safe is due to how their pilots think. They think and act like "airline pilots." They make decisions based upon sound operating principles, with an ever-present eye towards safety. The mindset of the pilots and the safety culture of an airline is understandable. When they crash they kill a lot of people. Not one, or two, or four. A whole lot.

When Colgan Air, a smaller airline, crashed on February 12, 2009, forty-nine people lost their lives. Including the two pilots who were determined to be suffering from fatigue and a lack of proficiency. That sentinel event rippled throughout the air travel industry and caused major changes to operating procedures, standards, and experience requirements. Ask any chief pilot or director of operations, the Colgan crash changed the paradigm.

When airline pilots are found to not be thinking and acting like "airline pilots," then, by golly or by government, something gets done. I suspect that most of our crashes in HEMS occur because too many of us fail to behave like our CFR Part 121 brethren. We helicopter pilots tend to be rugged individualists.

We have gotten where we are in life because of our own effort and determination. We resist anyone's attempt to change us. After all, what we have been doing has worked so far, right? Why would we ever need to change our behavior? When I start to think I have all the answers, I page back through my memories to all of my dumb mistakes and near misses, and I ask myself – what should I have done differently? 

A friend of mine, with whom I used to fly the line, left HEMS and began to fly in the utility sector. One day he was ferrying an aircraft in the southeast U.S. He landed in a field for weather, then made the decision to take back off. And pretty quickly he was dead from crashing into a river in bad weather. Another friend made a willful and conscious decision to fly into an area of storms after discussing these storms with another pilot and being offered a safe place to spend the night. He and his crew are dead. Another pilot elected to dispense with the sort of pre-takeoff challenge and response confirmation checks that help us make sure our aircraft is properly configured for flight. He had a switch set wrong on takeoff. He is dead too. 

You can't undo dead.

I can't tell you how many times I have seen a pilot perform an aggressive "top gun" takeoff. And maybe I have done one or two of them myself. Delta doesn't do that. I was at the Caraway Hospital base in Alabama once, and I watched a pilot repositioning for fuel roll a 206 all the way over onto its side. Sure, he looked cool, but if that motor had quit during that showing-off stunt, he would be another Humpty Dumpty.

The common denominator with all of these pilots?  They weren't thinking like airline pilots.

They weren't making choices the way an airline pilot would. In HEMS, we pilots and crews operate far away from the flagpole, from headquarters, from oversight. (OCCs notwithstanding) And we make lots of choices that have unbelievably severe repercussions. The altitude we fly at, the fuel reserve we operate with, the weather and winds we proceed into, the places we land and depart from and the manner in which we make those landings and departures; these decisions are super-important, and we should make them with one thing in mind. 

"We will not crash and kill ourselves today."

That's how professional airline pilots think. And no matter whether we carry four or forty-nine, that's how we should think as well. Because some actions can't be undone. Some choices are forever. As we operate, perhaps we should ask ourselves; "would a professional airline pilot make this choice?" If not maybe we should take a more conservative path. 

As we are out there on our own, we should never accept an undue risk because we think – or worry – that our peers would do it. And if we take pride in pressing on when “the other guys would have turned back,” maybe we should remember that pride goes before destruction. When its crunch time and you are wondering if the other pilots would do something, remember - they are not sitting there in your seat. You are. The safety of your crew and passengers trumps every other consideration. 

As we make choices, we should listen to that small still voice inside. That voice is there for a reason. Our ancestors who ignored it became some carnivore’s dinner. They no longer swim in the gene pool. We should make up our minds to be as safe as an airline pilot. If you find yourself wondering if something is a bad idea - it probably is. At the very least, avail yourself of one of the benefits a two-pilot crew has, the chance to bounce something off of another aviation professional. Call another ship, or your OCC if you have one, or even your next level of aviation management. Don't be afraid to ask for input. It makes you look wise and professional. 

Like an airline pilot.

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