Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Beyond the Safety Jargon

October 1, 2010  By Michael Bellamy

Safety Management Systems, root cause analysis, sterile cockpit, risk assessment.

Safety Management Systems, root cause analysis, sterile cockpit, risk assessment. The jargon of safe helicopter operations that pilots deal with seems to be constantly reinventing itself for fear it will fall on deaf ears if a new method of presentation isn’t introduced.

For management, catering to insurance underwriters, consultants, investors and Transport Canada, these are hallowed words and to question their sanctity evokes a glare of frustration, like a school master dealing with a recalcitrant teenager. I acknowledge the intent and accept the inevitable; however, I sometimes find myself longing for a time when a daily inspection was certified with one line in a journey log-book.

For some pilots and engineers in the field, our perspective is more pragmatic. Frustration over the endless paper trail and inspection reports that have to be filed, means an engineer is often more likely to be twisting a pen instead of a wrench. He or she also must deal with the wrath from a DOM if a check box is missed, and can come under close (and sometimes) unkind scrutiny at the end of a flying day. These informal sessions address the very same issues, perhaps in not as regimented a manner, but often more effectively.

Engineers broaching an elusive problem with a machine invite comments from others who have experienced the same or a similar snag. Pitfalls are discussed and remedies suggested. The result is a more knowledgeable engineer and a safer, more efficient, machine.


As pilots, we pledge our allegiance to a safe doctrine by attending the seminars and lectures and completing the ever-increasing regimen of exams during spring training. Little credence is given afterwards to the so-called, “There I was” sessions, which I believe can be every bit as valuable.

Prospective pilots are attracted to helicopters for the excitement. They scan YouTube looking for videos of helicopter crashes and watch the evening news as reporters focus on helicopters battling a raging forest fire. It’s an intoxication that soon has the candidate parting with some serious cash in the hopes of an adventurous career. I once saw a DVD that a first-year logging pilot had made of himself. Throughout the presentation was the soundtrack from the movie Top Gun, the testosterone-inducing lyrics “Highway to the Danger Zone” repeated over and over.

Obviously, a subtle attitude change is in the offing, but not to the point where the pilot is tethered to a ball and chain. Moderation is hoped for, tempered with good sense and the understanding of what attracted us to the cockpit in the first place. Pilots by nature are competitive and lured by excitement. Even with the older, experienced pilot there is that latent quest. It rarely results in an incident, but in an unwary moment can provide the opportunity for one.

Pilots will, from time to time, intentionally take on a higher than normal risk factor in an effort to please the customer or experience personal gratification. In this competitive industry, it is all too common. Hopefully, stretching established parameters too far will culminate with nothing more ominous than a good story and reassurance to them (“I’ll never do that again.)

That time honoured introduction, “There I was,” relates to a circumstance we have all encountered in our careers or may be about to. Never trade luck for skill, the old adage goes, but we have all been grateful for it at one time or another. Ego aside, pilots will readily admit to their peers of encountering close calls and with little encouragement, share the lesson.

I cannot think of a safety lecture that is listened to more raptly or that provokes more self recriminations than those given by pilots who discovered themselves, for whatever reason, with the torque at 100 per cent and adrenalin in “full rich.”

No matter how long or how briefly you have been at the controls, there are situations where you say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have done that” or “I wouldn’t have let it go that far.” You have either had that particular lesson before, or never ventured to that extent. By listening, you are allowing the pilot to re-live the experience and re-affirm the lesson it taught – and really, we can all do with a refresher now and again.

I appreciate “there I was” stories. They mean the pilots escaped, helicopters intact, with indelible lessons and valuable stories to share. We all appreciate luck but only a fool would count on it.

A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


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