Safety & Training
January 30, 2012 By Michael Bellamy
For helicopter operations away from home base, there is a crew arrangement that is distinctive to the industry: the relationship between pilot and engineer.
For helicopter operations away from home base, there is a crew arrangement that is distinctive to the industry: the relationship between pilot and engineer. One provides the wear and tear on aircraft; the other provides the loving care in maintaining it. It’s an arrangement that, for the most part, works well – but there are pitfalls and ramifications of discord between the two parties that have consequences.
Unlike in the military, with its enlisted rank distinction, pilots and engineers in civilian helicopter operations shouldn’t have authority over each other. Each contributes unique expertise to the safe and efficient operation of the helicopter. An equitable arrangement occurs when the helicopter is finished flying for the day – or when addressing a snag. The machine comes under the sole jurisdiction of the engineer until he releases it back to the pilot, confirming, “She’s good to go.” This, in my opinion, is the ideal working environment – the pilot and engineer understand and acknowledge each other’s contributions.
Pilots and engineers assigned to a machine often find themselves co-ordinating transport and sharing living accommodations, and as a result, over time, the most innocuous personality trait or work habits can become an irritant. We all have differing work habits and minor personality quirks and, it’s not uncommon for these traits to be deemed unacceptable. Such situations can cause a breakdown in the pilot/engineer relationship.
Unaddressed animosity between crew can create a stressful workplace and can easily interfere in helicopter operations. I have witnessed a pilot taking it upon himself to garner advice on a particular snag from other engineers, after deciding that the efforts of the engineer assigned to the pilot’s machine was not up to the task. But if that engineer wanted or needed advice, he would have asked for said advice himself – the pilot’s perspective was not necessary. In this particular instance, the pilot was baffled by his engineer’s sudden hostility – until he was briefed on his lack of professional protocol.
A professional approach must also be taken in the presence of passengers. For example, cynical remarks exchanged between crew members – or other complaints made in the presence of passengers – will, in all probability, be reported to the job manager. Such behaviour, is an unwanted blemish on an otherwise sterling performance if an unpleasant exchange occurs – and it will be the only thing the manager remembers long after the job is completed.
Injudicious or careless traits are also red flags that can develop in the relationship between pilot and engineer. For example, pilots who shut down a helicopter and walk away leaving the main rotor rocking in the wind, should be aware that the engineer also has a stake in the machine and its well-being. A pilot’s habit of leaving this task for the engineer is an exponential annoyance. Couple this with an indifference to each other’s well being, and this tour is well on it’s way to becoming stressful – and dangerous.
If problems arise between a pilot and engineer, the solution is a simple one: amicably discuss concerns over coffee and acknowledge unintentional irritants. This usually has the added benefit of prompting both to extend courtesy where none was considered before.
Occasionally, differences between the two parties cannot be resolved amicably – and either the pilot or the engineer may need to call management to resolve the situation by dividing the crew. Hopefully, management will not recognize this as a failing of either party; simply, it’s an acknowledgment of a situation that is beyond their control, and if left unchecked, could compromise a safe operation.
It’s important to remember that pilots and engineers embarked on career paths with a common interest. Valuable experience gained in both occupations ingrains in us a determination not to let our best judgments be compromised, perhaps not the most auspicious personality traits to grasp the nuances of playing nice.
The last thing that I want to do here is to be patronizing to engineers. But as a pilot, I can only speak from the pilot’s perspective and speculate on that of the engineer’s perspective. Remember, it’s the team concept that’s important – and it’s vital to the success of any operation. Pilots and engineers need to embrace and respect each other’s critical key role . . . and always put safety first.
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.