Safety & Training
Armstrong: The Perfect Flight
October 15, 2007 By Ken Armstrong
Are you up for it?
For that matter, is the perfect flight achievable? Theoretically, not only is it possible, it may even be attainable for average pilots each and every time they work toward this goal. For that matter, it should be every pilot’s ambition to strive for this target because it would maximize safety margins and passenger comfort, and optimize helicopter efficiency. After all, don’t we all want to be exceptional in our careers and possess the satisfaction that we make the world a better place?
How does this endeavour begin? The answer is a variable; however, it can start with ensuring you are personally current in all aspects for the upcoming flight – and the potential surprises that go beyond the scheduled activities. This might include a recent review of emergency procedures, learning in advance of the customer’s needs and preferences (to enhance mission planning) and checking the weather and NOTAMS. The latter are frequently overlooked by pilots and their omission can cause a world of grief in the event of an accident. Additional pre-flight planning should include reviewing the helicopter’s airworthiness, snag sheet and confirming the mandatory licensing documents are valid and in place. Is there an intercept procedures card aboard and is the magnetic compass correction card current? Did you do a full functional check on the hook for potential slinging operations before leaving the base, and how about a full walk-around inspection (according to the POH checklist)? Gotcha. It’s rare to see a pilot complete all of the pre-flight and pre-takeoff requirements – yet any one of the missed items can be a causal factor in an accident.
If your hierarchy is correct, you place the customers first, helicopter company second and your own needs last. So, have you provided the detailed (and obligatory) passenger safety briefing to ensure your passengers will be comfortable and safe? This service continues after takeoff with updates on progress and destination conditions (where applicable) and ensuring cabin temperature and ventilation are set for occupant comfort. Some pilots seem to fear radio use and avoid tasks such as position reports, traffic updates and calls to flight service for weather or traffic information. This is conduct unbecoming to a professional pilot.
During the course of the flight a pilot’s goal should be to maximize safety margins. This might include cruising several thousand feet AGL rather than just clearing the treetops and overcoming the desire to carve a course along a river between the trees and risking losing your head in the wire environment. Enroute, the pilot workload is typically reduced; however, this can be an appropriate time to learn more about the customers’ operations so we can find ways to utilize the helicopter to more readily meet their goals, keeping an eye out for traffic and in a radar environment utilizing flight following to aid with separation. Additional tasks can include looking for suitable emergency spots in case the engine, drivetrain or other component failures dictate an immediate landing.
Recording engine parameters can be very helpful. An imminent tail rotor angle gearbox failure over the Continental Divide in an S 58T was averted when I noted the free turbines were each turning up another 2% Ng to maintain rotor rpm – triggering my immediate diversion toward the Lady Laurier mountain airstrip. Minutes later, acrid smoke and the chip light illumination confirmed the timely diversion was prudent and a successful landing with full tail rotor control resulted – rather than an autorotation into densely-treed cumulo-granite. Another item worth recording during shutdown is engine coast down time from throttle chop at idle, because a decreasing time to reach zero rpm can indicate wear and increased friction in the turbine or in some cases gearboxes and drivetrain. This technique also saved my bacon once!
The perfect flight doesn’t end when we help our passengers out of the helicopter with their baggage, etc. We owe it to our flight partners, the AMEs, to provide inputs on the helicopter’s condition and if manpower or an imminent flight is a factor – help with repairs. For the perfection-oriented pilot, one’s vocabulary should not include the phrase: “That’s not my job.”
The scope of this column doesn’t allow all topics to be covered and since I am only an aspiring perfect pilot, some important items may have been overlooked. My goal was to touch on topics commonly overlooked. HELICOPTERS welcomes readers to provide their important inputs in the goal of seeking flying perfection.