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In Pursuit of Excellence

For many helicopter operations in Canada, one of the only things in common with scheduled airliners is, on occasion, a clearance received on the same frequency. Why is it then, that some embrace airline protocols and working conditions as the road to safe helicopter operations?


January 25, 2011
By Michael Bellamy

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For many helicopter operations in Canada, one of the only things in common with scheduled airliners is, on occasion, a clearance received on the same frequency. Why is it then, that some embrace airline protocols and working conditions as the road to safe helicopter operations?

Years ago, airline manufacturers and operators recognized that when anticipating emergency situations, the only factor that eluded calibration was the pilot, so they set out to minimize his/her participation. With scheduled passenger flights going from one city to the next you can do that; there is a known set of circumstances and a computer can minimize required input from the pilot.

Ever see the “emergency” checklist in a modern airliner? It’s a regimen of checks and responses that if deviated from comes under close and severe scrutiny after the fact. Make a decision contrary to the AFM (Aircraft Flight Manual) and the airline pilot will be paraded before a review panel of transport officials, insurance underwriters and airline management. It’s an inquisition that I am told would be detrimental to the pilot’s career if they determined fault. Surely such a tribunal would be weighing heavily on an airline pilot’s mind during a time of stress, encouraging him to follow published procedures regardless.

The emergency procedures section in a helicopter flight manual invariably has a caveat paraphrasing that in all cases the pilot will have situational awareness, and the procedures recommended reflect the degree of urgency. The pilot makes the decisions as to control and safe flight path.
Can you imagine airline manufacturers or air carriers giving pilots that much autonomy? Where airline pilots are found wanting, helicopter pilots are expected to excel. So, shouldn’t helicopter safety then emphasize decision-making and consequence?

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The assessments confronting a Jet Ranger pilot during a day of moving surveyors could never be handled electronically – instead we have to encourage cognitive reasoning and sound judgment.

When regulation and the auxiliary verb “shall” (indicating an obligation) are used too often, then all we are accomplishing is to remove the decision from the person who has situational awareness. Excessive regulation eliminates the process by which the pilot attains good judgment. Remember flight school? Riding with an instructor, you counted on him/her to take over if you extended yourself too much. Don’t have to worry here – just push it until the instructor calls, “I’ve got it.” You relied on someone making the decision for you. De-briefing would stress recognizing dangerous situations and making decisions as pilot-in-command.

On the one hand, we recognize that helicopter pilots rely heavily on judgment skills and then, in a myopic quest for safety, establish rules that prevent him or her from applying them. For example, working for the United States Forest Service entails a lot of regulation, with various officials having authority over the helicopter. One official may determine that forecasted winds exceed established parameters for safe operation and call the helicopter back to base. Another may determine there is too much radio traffic over the fire, and reduce effectiveness by pulling machines off the attack. External load capability is calculated by the pilot and then further reduced by a helicopter manager to where maximum torque is never required. All of these parameters were established in the hope of precluding an accident.

In all three instances, the pilot is never called upon to make a decision; it is made for him. As you know, winds are an asset, especially when lifting external loads, and only some of the time a detriment. Radio traffic may be chaotic over a fire, but often it reflects intense activity for a short while and then subsides. How can the pilot who is observing and assessing these conditions ever obtain good judgment if he or she is never called upon to exercise it?

Helicopters will always be found in isolated parts of Canada, with pilots and engineers working under primitive conditions. The simplest of tasks often presents monumental challenges. Safe practices are determined by individual professionalism – and the catalyst for professionalism is pride and personal satisfaction in accomplishing a task well. Develop a manifesto that stimulates that and we will be on the right track.

If some have their way, pilots and engineers will be so encumbered with regulations that the primary mission will no longer be economically feasible. It wasn’t always so. We just made it that way.


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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