Why SMS? or "How hard can it be to sling a boat anyway?"

February 06, 2008
Some pockets of resistance still exist when it comes to accepting the concept of a safety management system (SMS). Having worked in a prescriptive environment for more than 25 years, I have developed a clear understanding of the need for a comprehensive system that is designed to mitigate risk and continuously improve safety levels within an organization. During the early days of my career as an aircraft maintenance engineer, much of which was spent in northern Quebec, I repeatedly observed that a lack of good procedures derived from an SMS system could have catastrophic consequences.

boatweb Whether one is a pilot or an AME, the best response when questioned after an incident or accident is always “I followed company procedures.” Other excuses like “I had the best interest of the company in mind” just don’t cut it. It is assumed that company procedures are approved by experts in the industry and, if followed, everything should go smoothly. For this to be true there has to be an effective system in place to help an organization develop solid procedures, monitor the effectiveness of those procedures and modify them as necessary.

In the early 1980s, I worked for a small organization in the Ottawa area that operated light helicopters in northern Canada. After a winter of getting the various helicopters ready for another summer season, I set out with a young pilot who hadn’t seen a paycheque since the previous summer and was eager to bring this situation to an end. After two days of flying we finally brought our Enstrom 280C down on the edge of a lake on a cold, wet hillside 200 miles north of Shefferville. A team of geologists watched with excitement as their mode of transportation for the next few months carefully landed in a prepared clearing on the edge of the camp site.

One of the first orders of the day for the helicopter crew was to sling an aluminum boat back from an abandoned camp. As we flew across the swampy landscape in the direction of the coordinates we were given, the pilot looked at me perplexed and said, “I seem to recall there being a special way to sling a boat.” As the maintenance element of our crew with no previous experience in the field, I knew little or nothing about slinging boats and couldn’t offer much assistance. Our Ops manual didn’t mention anything on the subject and communication with our supervisor hundreds of miles to the south by HF radio was unlikely to be successful without some advanced planning. In an effort to console the pilot, I said “How hard could it be to sling a boat anyway?”

After loading the boat down with anything we could find of use left behind in the abandoned camp, we attached some barrel straps to the front and back of the boat that joined together on the hook end of a 10-foot lanyard. The load looked stable, and the pilot lifted off with the boat suspended horizontally below him. Moments later he returned, landed the aircraft and called me over. He said he was nervous slinging the boat without a second person on board to watch over it. I climbed in the aircraft and we took off once again, this time with my watchful eye on the boat.

The pilot explained that the camp boss had given him explicit instructions not to damage the boat.  The air speed climbed to 60 knots and the boat hadn’t budged from its nose forward position. The pilot started to relax and brought the air speed gently up to 70 knots as he watched me for any signs of trouble. As we slowly climbed above 70 knots, the nose of the boat began to move gently to the left. I glanced at the pilot to explain this latest development and to my horror the boat was now visible out the pilot’s door window flailing around only inches from the main rotor blades. The pilot felt the sudden shifting of the boat’s weight and put the aircraft into a steep descent, hoping to safely reach a point near the ground where the boat could be released unharmed into the swamp. We descended as planned, but then came the question of how to get the plummeting aircraft stopped in time to avoid a crash. This question never did get answered as we prepared for a hard landing in a swampy area with numerous dead trees standing between 10 and 20 feet in height. Splinters of wood flew in all directions as our main rotor blades made contact with the tree tops. Thanks to the swampy ground, the landing was remarkably soft despite our fast and steep descent.

After the aircraft settled down I stepped out to assess the damage. To my surprise the blades were unharmed, thanks to the rotten tree trunks that had blown apart on impact. After a careful inspection of the aircraft we returned to camp leaving the boat behind. We contacted our Ops manager. Fortunately, he knew how to properly sling a boat and, after a short discussion over the radio, we went back to finish the job with no further incident.

This is only one of several incidents that could have spelled disaster during my early tours in the field. This incident and no doubt many others might have been avoided as a result of a proactive hazard analyses, risk assessment, and resulting documented procedures, just some of the key elements in the implementation of an effective SMS system.



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