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Filling a Necessary Void

January 8, 2016  By Adam W. Johnson

Establishing the safest operating environment possible is the goal of operators worldwide and creating standards for Crew Resource Management (CRM) is certainly top of mind. Until recently, a CRM instructor’s course built specifically for helicopter pilots pertaining to civil pilots, was nowhere to be found, but that is not case now.

Rotary-wing operators now have a new CRM instructor’s course to utilize. Establishing the safest operating environment possible

Veteran pilot and trainer Randy Mains, in concert with Oregon Aero, has developed such a course and HeliWeb’s Adam W. Johnson recently had the opportunity to check it out. He shared this report with Helicopters.

…Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.”

Many of us strive to live our lives with this sentiment in mind, but few people I’ve met embody them as well as Randy Mains. As a matter of fact, he’s dedicated his life to it – to being the change he wants to see in the world.

If you are not familiar with Mains, allow me to enlighten you. He got his start in the helicopter industry serving in the United States Army as a Huey pilot in Vietnam. He flew more than 1,000 combat hours, during which time he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, and 27 Air Medals, among other awards. In the 47 years since then, he has herded cattle by helicopter in Australia, flown the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and has flown and instructed in several countries throughout the Middle East. While working as a senior flight instructor for Bell Helicopter International in Iran, the 1979 Islamic Revolution broke out, forcing him to flee on the last charter flight out of the country.


Upon returning to the United States, Mains, and other early pioneers, became a part of a new drive to create life-saving Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) programs based on the lessons learned and experience gained in Vietnam. Mains worked tirelessly to prove the concept of “the Golden Hour;” it is well established that trauma patients’ chances of survival are at their highest if they receive care within one hour after their injuries.

In January of 2013, Mains quit his job at Abu Dhabi Aviation to return once again to the States to try and make a difference. Fed up with reading headlines about the continuous loss of life he had observed in his years of HEMS experience, he knew he had to do something. After 47 years, and more than 13,000 flight hours, Mains proclaims, “I’m in the ‘giving back’ phase of my career.” As the author of four books, all of them helicopter related, he is
passionate about sharing his nearly five decades of aviation experience. He is absolutely passionate about safety – almost as passionate as he is about teaching.

At the Air Medical Transport Conference 2012 in Seattle, Wash., Mains crossed paths with Oregon Aero founder and CEO, Mike Dennis. Most pilots are familiar with Oregon Aero for their helmet and headset comfort and safety upgrade products, but they do much more than that. With their products, including crash-resistant seats, in literally hundreds of types of military and civilian aircraft, Oregon Aero seeks to change the status quo by designing products that surpass industry and marketplace expectations.

When Dennis heard about Mains’ idea for a Crew Resource Management Instructors course, and saw firsthand the passion Mains is known for, they immediately set out to form a partnership to sponsor the train-the-trainer CRM Instructor course that has been, if you think about it, nearly five decades in the making. This joint pursuit to make the helicopter industry a safer place is a match made in heaven. In the words of Oregon Aero’s chief operations officer Tony Erickson, “If we can prevent people from needing to experience the survivability of our crash resistant seats through the safety and awareness training that good CRM provides, that’s the best case scenario.”

Mains’s fifth CRM Instructor’s course took place in Canada from Jan. 8-12 at the Sidney Pier Hotel and Spa on Vancouver Island. The first-ever Canadian event featured three Canadian chief pilots, one Canadian line pilot and some prominent members from south of the border, including a senior flight nurse from UCLA’s Alert3 flight program and the director of clinical risk management at Air Methods Corporation, the largest helicopter air medical provider in the U.S.

When I was given the opportunity to attend the CRM Instructor’s course, I jumped at it. I was immediately impressed by Mains’ professionalism and communication. In the weeks leading up to the course, he sent out several emails to the attendees, first and foremost to introduce everyone, and secondly to relay information about accommodations. Mains followed up with everyone individually every step of the way to ensure the travel and check-in process had gone well. This level of attention to detail and follow-through struck me as a rare but welcome trait in this day and age.  

When we arrived at Oregon Aero’s headquarters in Scappoose, Oregon, we were given a tour of the facility before being led to a well-appointed and spacious classroom. Each of us was presented with a 280-page instructor’s manual, along with several other thoughtfully prepared handouts, including a flash drive pre-loaded with over three gigabytes of information. It was a bit overwhelming at first, and it seemed unlikely that we could possibly cover that much material in a five-day, 40-hour course. I was wrong. We covered all of it and more. Oregon Aero’s CRM Instructor course is intensive. Discussions are encouraged, and are often lively.

The instructor’s manual each of us received that we would ultimately use to teach and facilitate our individual CRM course once we returned to our home base was, as Mains put it, a “living document.” As new information is presented in the industry, new views are expressed and new lessons learned, that manual is destined to adapt and grow with us. Sure enough, by the end of the course, Randy’s prophecy had begun to fulfill itself; we were already swapping PowerPoint presentations and other information with one another.

In our class of five students (plus Mains), the combined experience in aviation between us was 44,250 flight hours and a jaw-dropping 368 years. As a relatively low-time CFI, to say I felt outgunned going in would be an understatement. I soon learned, however, that my fears of inadequacy were misplaced. The group meshed fluidly as the course proceeded. The diversity of experience – both in aviation and in life – continuously brought about unique observations, experiences and viewpoints.

The pilots in my class were: Dr. Bettina Schleidt, professor of industrial psychology and human factors from SRH University in Heidelberg, Germany; Hannes Ulmer, utility pilot and CFI in Zurich, Switzerland; Roland “Bud” Jarvis, most recently an instructor pilot and examiner with Abu Dhabi Aviation, but began flying helicopters in Vietnam, where he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross; Bill Orvis, assistant chief pilot for Sundance Helicopters in Las Vegas, Nev.; and lastly, myself, a former U.S. Marine Corps chemical biological radiological nuclear defense instructor, and current CFI in Oregon.

During the five-day course, the group continuously developed into a near family-like atmosphere. I attribute this phenomenon largely to Mains’ outstanding ability to facilitate. A good facilitator has the ability to take a step back from the formal role of instructor and instead encourage the development of a “just culture.” Not only did I witness this occurring in our very own group, but facilitation became a focal point in the overall tone of the course. “The way they do it in the airlines,” Mains told us.

Before we left each evening, we were assigned a relevant topic on which to give a presentation the following day. It was fun and interesting every day to watch each of us progress toward learning to stop instructing and start facilitating. Early attempts for nearly all of us were well intentioned, but still missed the mark.

One of the most challenging things to do as an instructor is learning when and how to shut up. With Mains’ leadership, and constructive evaluation and feedback from peers, we began to improve. Presentations improved. Our role as facilitators improved. On the first day, the tendency was for the student-instructor to dominate the allotted time period. By the time of our final presentations, we were getting the hang of it. We, as instructors, had learned to act more as shepherds of conversation – presenting the information as tools, and then stepping more into the role of facilitator by encouraging discussion.

The transformation was truly incredible, as it took the common – dare I say, even boring – safety lecture and turned it into a lively discussion by enthusiastic participants. Indeed, by the final presentations, the facilitated conversations were so interesting and so animated that I think we were all genuinely a little disappointed when the allotted time for each presentation had run out.

The objective of facilitated CRM training is to create a “just culture”– a culture in which people have no fear of retribution for having an open dialogue. The reason this role as a facilitator is so vitally important to CRM training is that it encourages attendees to invest themselves in the topic and take ownership of the material. Only when a person feels that he or she has a stake in something can it bring about a change in behaviour. That is, in short, precisely what CRM is – what Mains calls the CRM mantra: “A crewmember’s awareness of how his or her actions or inactions will affect the safe outcome of a flight.”

Facilitated CRM training has been proven more effective to change adult behaviour than any other method by the airlines and military aviation, preferable to electronic CRM training, which does nothing to change behaviour. The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) issued a statement in 2003 that “Most experts and practitioners are in agreement that the variability in the effectiveness of CRM training is largely linked to the quality of the delivery and not the content, and that training with a high degree of facilitation has been
more successful.”

When the United States Coast Guard implemented facilitated CRM training, it reduced its accident rate by a staggering 70 per cent. Other branches of the U.S. armed forces have implemented similar programs with similarly impressive results. Consider that CRM training is essentially nothing more than raised awareness of contributing factors leading to human error. In a NASA taskforce in 1980 to try to determine why so many airliners were crashing, they discovered that human error was a contributing cause in 80 per cent of all accidents reviewing records going back to 1940.

In Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA), that number increases to an unfathomable 94 per cent. The CRM Instructor Course seeks to teach instructors how to empower individual team members with the tools necessary to make the safest decision possible under a given set of circumstances – how to see and predict the “links” of an error chain forming and, more importantly, how to break that chain before it becomes an accident, and thus a statistic. I can think of few things that can yield more cost-effective or more immediate results to the safety culture of an organization than having an effective, facilitated CRM program in place. Oregon Aero’s and Randy Mains’s collaborative CRM Instructor course enables operators, more than ever before, to have exactly that.

Bill Orvis, asst. chief pilot for Sundance Helicopters, related his thoughts about his company’s outlook on CRM and safety training. “What we want is compliance,” he said. “Trying to get pilots to comply with what the company is asking for in its safety program requires a change in behaviour. In order to enact this change, crewmembers must be aware of what’s at stake. The key to gaining this understanding and communication is training. Facilitated CRM training is what will do it.”

When I asked Mains what prompted him to want to quit his well-paying job and create this course, he recounted the old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Just as he has been a determined advocate in the push for the installation of autopilots in HEMS aircraft, he is equally adamant that facilitated CRM training has the power to save lives. Saving lives was a resounding theme throughout the course, albeit in a selfless, unassuming way, as the aim of CRM facilitation is to provide people with the tools to save themselves. Now, having personally experienced Mains’ passion for CRM and safety, I must confide that I agree. As Bud Jarvis succinctly put it, “The value of this training is that it will keep
people alive!”


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