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Prehistoric Thinking

OK, it’s time for a rant about outdated, unsafe and caustic attitudes in the Canadian helicopter industry.


January 30, 2012
By Walter Heneghan

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OK, it’s time for a rant about outdated, unsafe and caustic attitudes in the Canadian helicopter industry.

It is a truism that any helicopter accident affects us all and certainly fatal accidents can have the most profound impact. Recently, there was a tragic fatal accident in Alberta whereby a mainstream media outlet, in search of sound bites, sought out informed opinion on the event. The pilot, who was interviewed, shared his thoughts about the weather conditions at the time and gave a view that in spite of “terrible weather,” continued flight is an acceptable choice because, in his view, “…that’s what we do. We call it pushing the weather and we understand the risks of what we do. We’re not stupid.”

Well, I just about came out of my skin. We fly helicopters, for heaven’s sake. We can land almost anywhere. Helicopters have landed on Mount Everest; pilots have landed to go to the bathroom, or to dip a line in a lake teeming with trout, or to take a photo of a beautiful landscape, or for a million other reasons. But, as this one pilot opines, helicopter pilots: “…push the weather, because it’s what we do”? This ludicrous, prehistoric, life-defying “get-’er-done” behaviour must be erased from our industry.

In my view, there is no reason to push the weather in a helicopter. After many years of flying in the Helicopter EMS world, sent on flights where we know lives may hang in the balance, the priority was always on the safety of the crew. The priority was always on safe flight operations. Professional pilots working in a dedicated EMS role don’t push weather to save lives – so why push the weather just to get home?

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Now, I don’t just want to pick on that one pilot. Controlled flights into terrain or CFIT accidents remain a major cause factor for commercial aircraft accidents. Data from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) indicates that between 2000 and 2009 there have been 129 CFIT accidents in Canada, resulting in 128 fatalities.

Collisions with land and water account for five per cent of accidents but nearly 25 per cent of all fatalities. These facts have led the TSB to put CFIT accidents as one of nine hazards on their Safety Watch List and one of three hazards in Canadian Commercial aviation. (The complete TSB documents addressing the Watch List can be found on the TSB Website at http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/medias-media/majeures-major/multi-modal/MI-Watchlist.asp).

A proposed solution from the TSB encourages wider use of technology to help pilots assess their proximity to terrain. Better weather forecasting, availability of this information to airborne aircraft, Ground Proximity Warning Systems and the like can be great tools to assist a pilot in the decision-making process. Technological tools that can aid us in making better decisions can be fodder for another time. Today, I submit to you that the only end point that really matters is good old-fashioned pilot decision making and the discipline to recognize the hazard and mitigate the risk.

It’s time for all helicopter aviators, as a peer group, to take broad, definitive steps to educate or eradicate the “weather pushers,” to foster the awareness in all helicopter pilots that when faced with poor weather, landing is always an option. In many cases, it is the best option. Most companies have some form of low-visibility operations instructions in their operations manuals. I am willing to bet that these instructions rarely exceed the regulatory minima. It is time to ask if these directives provided adequate guidance to pilots.

Maybe the time has come for us to start emphasizing landing as the preferred option, before we get to one half statute mile visibility and before the ceiling touches the ground. One half statute mile is only 800 metres, not even the length of six CFL football fields. At 90 kts, this distance is covered in only 17 seconds. At 60 kt, it’s 26 seconds. Are you slowing down enough in these low-vis situations? Do you have the training, awareness, alertness and skills to properly manage the hazards ever present in this environment? More importantly, why are you subjecting yourself, your aircraft and possibly your passengers to this risk when there is a better option?

The TSB says that 25 per cent of all fatalities in the last decade are associated with CFIT accidents. What is your commitment to reducing that number in this decade? What is your personal commitment to eradicating “…that’s what we do. We call it pushing the weather and we understand the risks of what we do. We’re not stupid.”


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 debut regular column for Helicopters magazine.


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