Safety & Training
Countdown to 2010: January/February 2008
By Mark McWhirter
The importance of helicopter safety will be in the forefront of public awareness for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It should be no surprise to anyone in the industry that there is an inherently false belief among the general public as to the safety of helicopters. The depth of this stereotype is both troubling and confusing – it is an urban legend, rather than a legitimate or proven concern.
By Mark McWhirter
The importance of helicopter safety will be in the forefront of public awareness for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It should be no surprise to anyone in the industry that there is an inherently false belief among the general public as to the safety of helicopters. The depth of this stereotype is both troubling and confusing – it is an urban legend, rather than a legitimate or proven concern. The problem is simple. Vocal and powerful groups often voice their opposition to rotary-wing aircraft operating in urban environments with cases based on a few examples of catastrophic accidents. Or people are just afraid of something that is unusual or different. Never do you hear the outstanding record of Canadian heli-operators, or the ongoing safety and service which they provide to the public.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Toronto and the ongoing opposition to a police helicopter. The resistance to helicopters has gained grassroots strength and media acknowledgement. It has persistently been an effective and vocal opposition. However, anyone who is educated with respect to helicopter safety knows the claims are ludicrous and nothing more than simple fearmongering. The challenge is to overcome these misconceptions and demonstrate the safety and usefulness of helicopters.
The Olympics will provide an opportunity to demonstrate the impeccable safety record of the Canadian rotary-wing industry and the versatility of the machines we operate on a daily basis in so many roles. An unprecedented number of machines will be operating within a confined space flying countless mission objectives, many of which will be well within the public perspective. For many in the general public, this could be one of the first opportunities to see helicopters operating up close.
Helicopters will be needed for aerial surveillance, ground support, policing, courier service, broadcast assistance, VIP transport and air ambulance roles. Helicopters are all too often viewed as utility machines which are unfamiliar to many in an urban setting. After all, how often are helicopters seen operating in an urban environment other than for traffic, police or air ambulance duties? Overflying helicopters are often treated as white noise and don’t necessarily attract the attention of many; rather they are usually regarded as an annoyance that is generally ignored.
Unique challenges will be faced by all operators in the Lower Mainland and the Sea-to-Sky Corridor during the Olympics. Not only will they have to deal with the normal rigours of fast-changing and unpredictable mountain weather, but they will also have the added challenges of unprecedented air traffic and temporary airspace restrictions and day-to-day changes. These inherent challenges will test the skill of all pilots, but more importantly, they stress the need to operate to the highest level of safety.
The Olympics is also a fantastic time to promote and further develop technology and infrastructure, which can enhance safety. For example, the Langley Regional Airport has taken steps to improve the IFR capabilities to provide a viable alternate during inclement weather. The research project studied the feasibility of lowering the minimum altitude for a GPS approach from 680 feet to 480 feet. Other existing technologies can be adapted to better suit the unique requirements of communication, surveillance and ground-based monitoring.
Why not use this opportunity to build public confidence and awareness of rotary-wing machines? The importance is in maintaining the integrity and respect that we have developed within the industry and expanding it into the general public. The Olympics is truly the opportunity to overcome and dismiss the myths associated with helicopters once and for all. The challenge lies in passing our knowledge to the general public by demonstrating that helicopters are non-disruptive and, most important, safe.