(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)
The thing that makes safety somewhat—well—boring, is that it is the absence of occurrence. We devote time, effort, and money in order to make something not happen. To keep us motivated and focused on this goal, it helps to remember the overwhelming sensations of disappointment and sorrow that follow a catastrophic mishap; one in which an aircraft is destroyed and people you know are killed.
Use these memories to keep yourself mindful. Maintain a preoccupation with failure, because such a preoccupation is one of the hallmarks of a highly reliable company, team, or person. While sentinel events often involve death and destruction; occasionally, thank goodness, we are confronted with a story in which people rise up above an exceedingly dire situation and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. They never give up trying to turn an in extremis situation into something survivable. These stories, and the events which spawn them, are the stuff of legend. When we read these stories we learn about people possessed of “The Right Stuff.”
As I am officially old, and my cultural references are dated, I will point out that author Tom Wolfe wrote a book with that title in 1979. It was about the first astronauts that America put into space on rockets, and, as well, those who went to the edge of space in rocket-powered winged-aircraft. The story was made into a fantastic movie--if you haven’t seen it you have something to look forward to.
There is a scene in this film in which Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to talk about it, is testing a high-performance jet aircraft which, in the dispassionate and clinical language of an accident investigator, “departs controlled flight.” I hope you never have to experience an aircraft departing controlled flight, because at that point you are basically along for the last ride of your life.
Unless you can somehow wrest control of the situation and regain authority over your aircraft. Often you can’t, which is why several fighter pilots over the years have taken advantage of the seats made by the company founded by James Martin and Valentine Baker and ejected from aircraft that have experienced a departure from controlled flight. Yeager does this in the book and the film. There’s a reason he’s a hero and it goes beyond breaking the sound barrier.
Helicopters don’t come with ejection seats. When a helicopter departs controlled flight, such as is described in the NTSB’s recent preliminary accident report about an EC-135 that crashed in Pennsylvania in January of this year, the only option available to pilot and team is to stay with it and keep trying.
By all accounts, that is what the pilot of this aircraft did. Thanks to eyewitness reports and doorbell cameras(?!?) we can, in our imagination, ride along on this flight which was unremarkable right up until the instant when the helicopter went “BANG” and rolled right out of control. According to the flight team in the back, it went inverted—maybe more than once. They were pinned to the ceiling.
The pilot never gave up. And he got it right side up and in a nose-up decelerating attitude just before planting it in the one clear spot available to him that didn’t involve hurting anyone on the ground. He dodged wires and houses and a church and the people in it.
He displayed “The Right Stuff.”
After the crash, the flight team demonstrated that they too have the right stuff. The NTSB report states, “Following the accident, the flight nurse evacuated the patient then evacuated the pilot while the medic shut down both engines. The nurse travelled with the patient while the medic travelled with the pilot to area hospitals.” (Do the people you fly with know how to shut down the engines on your aircraft?) The photo of that evacuation—of that nurse climbing from the wreckage of that helicopter, baby in arms--will be iconic, like the picture of a child in the arms of Oklahoma City Firefighter Chris Fields after the bombing there, and other images of rescuers and the rescued from 9/11. These images restore our faith in humanity and remind us which way is up.
Nice work, team.
This legendary helicopter story will go down in the annals of aviation history, right up there with Sully Sullenberger and the Miracle on the Hudson, Al Haynes and United Flight 232 in Sioux City Iowa, and Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny and Qantas Flight 32 in Singapore. In each of these cases the aircraft came apart and the crew kept it together.
It’s good to read these stories and talk about them. In your imagination, put yourself into that crew’s position. Aircraft are extremely reliable, and you might go through an entire flying career without ever having an engine failure or other significant mechanical problem. And then again, they do happen and it might happen to you. The fact that you have thousands of accident and incident-free hours does not preclude a big bang on your next flight. As John Jordon says in the HAI video Autorotations: Reality Exposed, “every time I fly, I tell myself, today’s the day!”
When your time comes, (and you should decide right now that it will) you must try to avoid being startled. The best way to do this is to expect trouble. By studying events like the Duke Life Flight crash—which didn’t end well--and this more recent event which did (a destroyed helicopter notwithstanding), you can increase your own mindfulness. You can nurture your preoccupation with failure and work against the probability of that failure killing you. You too can possess The Right Stuff.