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Distorting Realities

We needn’t venture very far to witness confirmation that aviation is still a very dangerous occupation.


March 5, 2014
By Michael Bellamy

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We needn’t venture very far to witness confirmation that aviation is still a very dangerous occupation. All one has to do is tune into the several television reality series whose main theme is devoted to non-scheduled charter or ferry flying. Helicopters have so far been excluded from this venue, but with public perception being what it is, rotary-wing crews have always been associated with greater risk.

For many of us in the aviation industry these flying programs hold an interest. We can easily discard the distortions and identify the genuine risk as the commentator rambles on, grossly exaggerating the seriousness of every malfunction or manoeuvre. We know that when a turbine compressor gauge starts to wander and without collaboration from the exhaust temperature it is usually just indicative of a tired tach generator. It’s no big deal and in spite of the presenter’s dire prediction, we don’t believe that the airplane is about to crash. On another occasion, the pilot is depicted fighting the controls combating a malfunctioning autopilot when simply hitting the disengage switch should stabilize the airplane. These are just some examples of the many embellishments required to maintain high drama in the hopes that the series will attract sponsors.

Our formal aviation knowledge enables us to distinguish concocted rhetoric from reality, but that is not the case with the majority of viewers. To the uninitiated, the catastrophic predictions are believed and when they don’t materialize, the narrow escape is attributed to either luck or incredible airmanship. The popularity and spinoffs that have accumulated only increase the director’s enthusiasm for even more theatrics. The weekly adventures provide entertainment, but moreover succeed in deceiving the viewers with spurious emergencies that reflect poorly on our industry.

During the introduction of one popular series the camera records a sequence of tripping accidents while working around aircraft. The show depicts employees falling off ladders, stumbling on an ice-covered ramp and so on. It’s no wonder life insurance providers insist on a risk rider for the aircrew.

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Customers that fly with us on a regular basis are familiar enough to identify specious dangers, but what about the people whose only association is indirect, such as safety auditors, staff preparing helicopter contract requirements or insurance underwriters? Is it any wonder that a lot of companies we contract to now include in their indoctrination a 30-minute lecture highlighting the proper use of a stepladder? 

Social media gatherings such as Facebook have become very popular catering to distinct groups such as fire bombers, helicopters, air rescue and so on. Members post photographs and relate experiences. All are very interesting and useful, but when you read some of the well-intentioned comments following the post, you begin to understand how little confidence the general public has about safety in our industry.

Flight crews are not unlike everyone else and appreciate compliments; they richly deserve the accolades when a job is well flown. However, when commentators focus on a helicopter lifting someone out of harms way or fighting a forest fire, then refer to the pilots as heroes, it reveals just how dangerous they believe flying a helicopter must be. 

Demonstrating competence at the controls of a helicopter is a recurrent requirement given to all pilots. Combine this with a modern high performance helicopter and piloting is little more dangerous than city driving. There is no place at the controls for a pilot who endangers the lives of his crew by exceeding his own and the machine’s capability even when the mission is a medevac.

Who hasn’t witnessed news groups giving secondary status to a fatal traffic pile up, instead focusing on an airplane that has just made an uneventful forced landing. The on-site reporter is there to provide additional suspense by directing attention to emergency vehicles and passengers who appear stressed. Their agenda is to gain viewers and in doing so, reinforce the public’s perception of the dangers of flying.

Flying helicopters is not a hazardous occupation, but those outside the industry feel compelled to elaborate on insignificant dangers instead of expressing an overall admiration for an industry and a machine with wonderful capabilities.


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


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