Saturday, October 28, 2023

Getting Less Bang for Your Buck

(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)

It must be tough to be the director of operations or chief pilot of a helicopter company. My old friend and mentor Clark Kurschner, who was a long-time D.O. for Omniflight Helicopters and extremely Yoda-like; told me once that playing beach-volleyball was his only escape from stress and worry. These positions within a certificate-holding aviation company are required by regulation – for good reason. The gravity-like pull towards lower costs and greater profits could easily lead to a culture of cutting corners – the D.O. and C.P. have to stand up and hold the line for safety. To provide the training required by federal, state and even local rules is very expensive. Any company that can cut costs has a leg-up on the competition for contracts and resources. One of the easiest places to cut corners is in the realm of training, and someone with a business background may not understand how important training is. They also may not fully understand this axiom of human behavior: experience drives attitude and attitude drives action when no one is looking.

Image courtesy Mercy Flight Central, where the author 
has presented CRM training twice.

While preparing for a leadership job in 2004, I learned that South Carolina demanded an EMS helicopter pilot have 25 hours of pilot-in-command flight experience in the “make and model” of any helicopter they would be flying within the state. 

We were going to operate a Bell 230 and a Bell 206 and were looking at having to fly a tremendous number of “non-revenue” hours. I called the state’s division of health and environmental control and asked where that rule came from. The state’s guy had no idea so I wrote a letter asking for relief from that rule so that we might more quickly offer life-saving services to the state’s citizenry. I mean, after all, it would have been a shame to have some kid’s mom bleed out on the side of I-26 while we were out chopping holes in the sky to satisfy a requirement that exceeded anything the FAA or other state in our region required.  

We got the hours required down to 15 per pilot per machine, and saved the direct-operating-costs of a few hundred flight hours. None of the six of us pilots ever crashed because of the hour-reduction South Carolina permitted us. In fact, in the majority of instances when a pilot crashes an aircraft it has nothing to do with their flight experience or technical proficiency. It most often comes down to how pilots “feel” about the situation they find themselves in. Even in the instances of death by lack of skill, the situation that required the demonstration of a skill that was lacking was most-often created by “attitude.” Attitude is a non-rational mix of behavioral inputs from the cognitive and emotional components of our personalities. And to be sure – “the way we do things around here” drives attitude as well. As it turns out, many pilots (and business executives) are loathe to delve into the touchy-feely world of feelings and attitudes. As a retired Delta pilot with whom I was recently sharing beers said, “That stuff don’t matter!” Taking nothing away from our conversation and sharing of flying-lies, and his cold beer: I disagree. I believe to the extent that we can affect attitudes; we can shape “hearts and minds,” we can stop helicopter pilots from crashing helicopters.  And right after a crash is when it must really suck to be a D.O. or C.P.

As you prepare a training plan and budget for the pilots you employ, consider that the technical skills you seek to instill, reinforce, or verify in your team – while extremely important – are very likely not going to be what prevents you from having to explain why your helicopter crashed and left dead bodies on the ground. While you must comply with what the “rules” require, and such compliance is very expensive, the good news is that shaping attitudes has zero direct-operating costs and you will never bang up a helicopter providing touchy-feely training – or as the FAA calls it, “Soft Skills Training.”

So where do you start? Well, first of all, if you aren’t familiar with Crew Resource Management Training, open up your mind and get with google. Learn the basics; what works and what doesn’t. Seek to understand group-dynamics, the power of social-settings, and the influence of charismatic leadership. Know that the relationship between CRM “facilitation” and attitudinal-change is elastic.  

If you tell me that the way I feel about something is wrong – even if you show me evidence and examples and valid information, I may well refute and refuse your efforts. And then, over time, I may come to see things differently – and that’s what you want! We don’t want a pilot to simply recite safety and success, we want a pilot to live and breathe safety and success - in the interest of living and breathing.  Make no mistake – safety and success are irrevocably linked – without one there will be less of the other.

CRM “facilitators” don’t try and tell others how to feel – facilitators let others evolve their own feelings at their own pace, because that’s the only way it happens. I use the terms facilitator and instructor interchangeably, because a good one will seamlessly switch from one role to the other during a session -as the situation, level of understanding, and personalities demand. 

You probably have people in your company who would be great CRM instructors, and they may or may not be pilots from your flight-standards section. They may not even be pilots! My friend Randy Mains conducts CRM instructor training courses several times a year. His week-long preparation for the job is excellent – especially for someone unaccustomed to standing up and delivering to a group. Randy employs the crawl-walk-run style of learning, and it works magnificently.

I know this because after being a CRM instructor myself for several years I went and spent a week with him and several other students. I was part of the group-dynamic. I was influenced by the social-setting. And I experienced charismatic leadership as displayed by two young women just starting their careers as pilots. I influenced them, and they influenced me and we were all better for it. Sami and Grace will doubtlessly make our industry more safe and successful thanks to their dedication to CRM principles. 

So could you. Step right up…

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