Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Image Is Everything

March 8, 2011  By Michael Bellamy

As pilots, we are all familiar with the mechanics of how a helicopter flies, but without a customer, it will stay in the hangar.

As pilots, we are all familiar with the mechanics of how a helicopter flies, but without a customer, it will stay in the hangar. It’s usually not too much trouble to meet the objectives. But how much time is spent analyzing how our actions and appearance influence those same customers?

For pilots in the light- to intermediate-category, clients are usually sitting right beside you, watching your every move. Have you ever wondered how your actions are being interpreted? You should. Your purpose – and that of the helicopter – is to make money for the owner. Superlative skill at the controls is not the only criterion.

Pilots and engineers are on the front line as public relations for the company and should be aware that with customers, sometimes the most innocuous occurrence can have far-reaching consequences.

I once had to respond to an irate client of ours who informed me that, in spite of one of the pilot’s impeccable qualifications, he would not be flying with us again. When asked why, he related an experience which he perceived to justify his misgivings.


All throughout his last flight, the pilot in question immediately switched off a recurring warning light. (The light in question was on the 206 instrument panel: “HTR Fail.”) Understanding the implications of “Fail,” but not “HTR,” the client convinced himself that the pilot was trying to hide a serious deficiency when in fact the pilot was only cycling the Janitrol heater.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” to borrow a line from the captain in the movie Cool Hand Luke. Had the pilot been a little more attuned to the man sitting beside him, his passenger would not have harboured misconceptions nor shared them with other potential customers.

People who charter helicopters usually do so on a regular basis and are familiar with normal practices. Erratic or repetitious cockpit checks will only heighten their unease and will no doubt generate spurious speculation later on.

Here’s one way to handle the situation: if you perceive passengers may be uneasy or interested in what’s happening, let them know what’s going on. For example, your approach to a mountain repeater site will be less stressful to the electrician if you let him know you’re going to do a low recon first before circling to land. If you don’t, he is going to fill in the blanks and later – over coffee – regale his co-workers with the harrowing first attempt you made at landing. This does happen and, all too often, reputations are irrevocably damaged.

Flying in a helicopter is an exciting adventure for occasional passengers and they will readily describe and often enhance the danger when relating to others. If you provide the scenario without a timely explanation, their limited knowledge will provide the rest.

I have been queried numerous times by customers who were looking for an explanation as to the actions of a pilot they had flown with, wanting to know if they were in any danger. Without knowing all of the circumstances, I never pass judgment, but prefer to reassure their safety and suggest that if it happens again, simply ask the pilot.

Appearance works in the same manner. For example, flight suits used to be prevalent among helicopter pilots, but since EMTs usurped and accessorized, the zipper coverall has given way to street clothes. But remember, you are flying a multimillion-dollar helicopter and entrusted with the lives of passengers.

Let’s face it, if your favourite dress in the summer is shorts, flip-flops and your ears look like the spine of a day timer, you are probably going to be the topic of discussion on the customers’ drive home.

Engineering also comes under scrutiny. If you saunter by a helicopter looking like you should be pushing your belongings in a grocery cart, don’t expect to inspire confidence. You may be the most competent engineer on the roster, but passengers don’t know that. They will judge the image you present to them, and relate that to the machine and the company.

Qualifying to fly or maintain a complex machine like a helicopter is not easily gained. It takes years of hard work and perseverance – so, why would anyone allow that accomplishment to be challenged or degraded by a false impression?

If you think adjusting attitude, dress and deportment just to please a customer is not worth your time, try flying without one.

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


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