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PDM Training: Do More!

In a quest to avoid repeating myself, I want to address pilot training. I want to explain why we need to shift focus on how we train and, what we teach, and why we need to shift paradigms.


January 15, 2013
By Walter Heneghan

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In a quest to avoid repeating myself, I want to address pilot training. I want to explain why we need to shift focus on how we train and, what we teach, and why we need to shift paradigms.

Most operators use the shoulder season to fix their aircraft after a busy flying season and to tweak their training regimes to prepare for the next year of flying. Earlier this year, I wrote about what is causing accidents, and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is a big one. In November 2012, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) released its findings into a fatal accident at Drayton Valley in October 2011. According to the TSB Report (A11W0152), “. . . a search of the TSB database for the period of January 1992 through May 2011 revealed 24 occurrences involving VFR helicopter flight that resulted in collision with terrain in instrument meteorological conditions. These occurrences resulted in 32 fatalities.”

Furthermore, in this report, the TSB reiterated a comment from a 2000 accident report. “The Board concluded that, without a systemic approach to improving Pilot Decision Making (PDM) training, accidents resulting from ineffective decisions in complex situations would continue to affect commercial operations.”

Twelve years later, the toll continues to rise. It is not just the regulator who bears responsibility for this shortfall in training. All commercial operators who train to the bare, regulatory minimum share the burden. And quite frankly, maybe it’s time for pilots to insist on better training, more training days and more professional development.

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I am not just talking about in aircraft or simulator training. I am talking about honest to goodness PDM training coupled with comprehensive Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Threat and Error Management training. I am talking about the squishy skills. From my own analysis of accident data, we know that decision and CRM errors account for some 40 per cent of significant accidents. We have been completing CRM training since the Dryden Air Ontario disaster yet we are still having too many CRM/PDM related accidents.

Even Wendy Tadros, TSB chair in her speech at the Helicopter Association of Canada’s fall convention, was beating the drum about changing the way we do things. Said Tadros: “Because when you get right down to it, all accidents are ultimately organizational. And the reason is because it’s the decision makers of an organization – the supervisors, managers, presidents, owners – who set the goals and communicate the priorities for everyone else. These senior members of an organization have to be aware of risks.”

So what can we do about it as managers and pilots? Well, for starters, take personal responsibility. Read. Upgrade your skills. Take personal training. And as pilots, advocate within your own companies for more comprehensive support. As managers, it’s time to take a hard look at your operations manuals. Do you really need half mile vis Ops Specs? Do your customers understand how low that is? Take a leadership position and stand up for higher limits. The bulk of our industry is made up of single pilot, single-engine operations. What is happening in training for single-pilot CRM? How comprehensive is it? Does this training encompass customer input?

A case in point. I recently was invited to attend a course provided by Advanced Crew Solutions titled Helicopter Awareness Training. Its target audience is our client base – forestry workers, linemen, anybody really who flies as a passenger in our aircraft. The day-long course addresses the helicopter industry, regulations, pilot and passenger duties and responsibilities – the full range of concerns that passengers may have. But more importantly, it provides a level of awareness and skill to our client base to make them more aware and maybe to facilitate their intervention in the decision-making process so that they stay safe.

Companies that provide this type of training to our client base are speaking loud and clear that the more knowledge their employees have, the safer we all will be.

So, let’s not wait for Transport Canada to dictate or for the Transportation Safety Board to investigate or for our clients to mandate. Let’s as an industry step up to the plate and improve, by quantifiable measures, the quality and frequency of the decision-making training we provide our pilots so that we can take meaningful steps in reducing the fatal accident rate in our industry.


Walter Heneghan is the VP of Safety and Quality at Canadian Helicopters. A passionate advocate for aviation safety and sound risk management, the veteran pilot presents his regular column for Helicopters magazine.


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