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Helicopter Heroes

Chances are, if you have been in this industry for a few years, you have flown risky missions and saved lives and/or property. For that matter, if you have flown extensively on fire suppression missions or in mountainous/heavily forested terrain, your life has been subjected to emotional stress and physical strain on an almost constant basis.


February 23, 2009
By Ken Armstrong

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Chances are, if you have been in this industry for a few years, you have flown risky missions and saved lives and/or property. For that matter, if you have flown extensively on fire suppression missions or in mountainous/heavily forested terrain, your life has been subjected to emotional stress and physical strain on an almost constant basis. While the general populace has revered airline pilots as the white knights of the aviation industry, those of us who have experienced the broad spectrum of the aviation industry know it’s the fellows flying the bush who are almost constantly in harm’s way.

A helicopter pilot typically makes more decisions and faces far greater challenges in daily operations than the aviators cruising in the flight levels. Dealing face-to-face with clients and maintenance crews adds to the workload. Moreover, the rotary-wing driver doesn’t have a flight dispatcher making weight and balance decisions, routing and other dictates for him nor has ATC providing enroute weather update in remote terrain. Compared to heavy-metal drivers, we are overworked, underpaid and don’t get the respect we deserve. However, our industry provides its own rewards. The tasks are more rewarding and the scenery surpasses stratospheric cruising. Moreover, our day-to-day services commonly include tasks such as: medical evacuation, fire suppression, long lining, personnel hoisting and a host of other special skill challenges that often produce heroes or heroic actions.

You don’t have to receive medals for bravery to qualify as a helicopter hero. The truth is, many of the missions that require rotary-wing support will put the aircrew in the path of peril. While we often feel that the incredible capabilities of our helicopters give us the power to overcome physical challenges, this may only be true if all of the helicopter parts are flying in close formation and working toward the same goal. If a significant portion of the machine’s physiology fails, for instance the tailrotor drive shaft, one will quickly experience the thrill of danger and possibly the agony of defeat…. Consider hovering on the end of a 150 foot long line with a drill platform dangling into the heavily forested steep, rocky slope when the anti-torque function takes a time out. This gives one cause to consider the inherent risks of our industry and the fact that our death and dismemberment rate is the same as west coast tree fallers. To put this into perspective, a pilot with 26 years experience in the industry has a 50/50 chance of having sustained a serious injury – or looking at the grass from the wrong side! But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Few of us consider the risks associated with everyday flights and most of us do not practise emergency procedures as often as we should. Moreover, many of us do not conduct our flights in a manner to maximize safety margins.

Why would pilots be so blasé about passenger safety and their own lives? My guess is that flyers operate for hundreds or thousands of trouble-free hours and therefore subconsciously assume an accident isn’t a part of their “karma.” This is faulty logic. Whether you will be involved in an accident or even major component failure is largely a matter of exposure to flying operations – and your personal safety management. God knows our tasks are often challenging and risky enough that we don’t need to add the “wild man” or “cowboy” aspect to our operations. Perhaps an example is in order. In the early days of helicopter Emergency Medical Services, poor pilot decision-making resulted in a horrific number of crashes. “Heroic” pilots would push weather by low-flying in the wire- and obstacle-strewn environment and they were killing almost as many people as they were saving. (OK, I’ll admit to a little hyperbole there, but, only a smidge.) The truth is, our tasks can be overwhelming at times during normal operations and multiplying the risk with faulty decision-making can eliminate our critical safety margins. Then, when a mechanical failure erupts, we are over the edge and along for the ride enroute to an accident.

So maybe there is more than one type of hero. The pilot capturing my kudos is the aviator who invests in flight safety with detailed pre-flight planning including a comprehensive passenger briefing and a flight that challenges the pilot’s ability to maximize the safety margins while efficiently accomplishing the mission. That’s my champion.

Ken Armstrong is an ATP rated pilot who has likely flown more helicopter types than anyone in the world and taught advanced flying skills in dozens of countries.


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