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Bushed Engineers

March 10, 2011  By Ken Armstrong

During a tour of a BCFS (BC Forest Service) helicopter fire suppression base, I introduced myself to the AME servicing a heavy helicopter.

During a tour of a BCFS (BC Forest Service) helicopter fire suppression base, I introduced myself to the AME servicing a heavy helicopter. He curled his lip and sneered: “I know who you are; you’re the guy who advocates dragging Bambi buckets in moving rivers and I’m the guy who has to repair them.” 

With introductions complete, albeit not in an overly friendly manner, we entered into a discussion about the partnership known as “pilots break them and technicians fix them.” I opened with the fact that we are both in the field to serve the customer’s needs while providing revenue to our employer and if the only water source was a moving stream, then we were compelled to use that water supply. He countered with the fact that he was primarily in the field to fix the helicopter and keep it serviceable and not to spend a lot of his time repairing buckets.

It appeared to be a stalemate until I added that during times of high workload, I would remain behind at the end of a flight and help the engineer with his tasks. This might entail holding tools or parts in place, repairing buckets under his supervision, becoming a “gofer” locating lubricants etc., or simply supplying him with coffee or moral support to ensure the tasks were all completed at a reasonable hour. 

Our harangue ended in mutual acceptance of each other’s tasks that often overlap and are not necessarily well defined. There is a lot of give and take during operations in the bush, and the ability of a pilot or engineer to flow with the unpredictable is one of the attributes that defines a superior employee. Getting along with each other makes the job much easier for all concerned. (Customers witnessing helicopters crews menacing each other with heavy tools are inclined to lose confidence in the safety level of our services).


This same senior engineer (who likely thinks of himself as middle-aged), also observed there is little or no consideration given to technicians in terms of duty hours or time in the “bush.” Although there are plenty of onerous and rigid regulations in place to determine how many hours a pilot can work in a day and how much rest time is due, there is no such thing in place to protect engineers. Moreover, there are no legal limits as to how long a company can leave an AME out in the field nor how many days he can work in a row. 

Are engineers superhuman? When I asked whether he would like to see regulations in place similar to pilots, he started backpedalling, as if a ferocious dog were about to attack. (Incidentally, I think of Transport Canada as a well-meaning organization, not a vicious canine at all . . . ) No, this hard worker definitely did not want additional regulations because he said hard and fixed rules cannot adequately address all of the situations that one finds in the field and operators and their crews need to be flexible. (We already figured that out after the duty time limitations were applied several years ago, didn’t we?) 

Since it is question period, do you recall why Transport created all those restrictive rules in the first place? Here’s a hint. Pilots pursuing pay packages were motivated to fly hundreds of hours a week for months on end and if you asked them their name at the end of a 17-hour day, they may have thought they were a reincarnated and levitated Lothario . . . 

Unfortunately, this level of fatigue leads to high accident rates. So what’s the solution to the engineer’s dilemma? Engineers want companies to consider the hardships of long days and weeks or months in the field and cycle replacements on a more frequent basis. Companies would likely counter that cycling crews is costly and there is a shortage of qualified technicians available.

However, as a pilot who has logged many months in tents and motels, I am sure we can agree that a “bushed” engineer is one of the last people we want working around “our” helicopters. May I suggest that company leadership and the engineering staff get together to set some acceptable guidelines for technicians duty times (don’t forget the apprentices) so that we provide a better lifestyle and safer working situations for all concerned. The alternative is Transport’s mighty sword writing regulations into stone! And we don’t want that, do we?

This is Ken Armstrong’s last regular column. Helicopters would like to thank Ken for his many contributions to the magazine over the years. His expertise and professionalism will be missed. Best of luck in your future endeavours, Ken.


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