Contingencies are the Keys

All the technology in the world can't keep Mr. Murphy away
Fred Jones
January 02, 2018
By Fred Jones
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.”


At the risk of dating myself, I remember flying in our industry in the days before GPS – and before LORAN C – when we had to rely on hard-copy maps in order to find our way from A to B. I remember the days before satellite phones, when we had to rely upon HF radios to communicate with the base. Sometimes we didn’t even have HF. I also remember when chip lights were a much more commonplace event in our industry. Now, virtually all aircraft have at least one GPS and one sat phone, satellite tracking, and chip lights are relatively rare. In light of all this wonderful technology, it is easy to forget Mr. Murphy. I can’t tell you how many times I was thankful that I had my tool kit with me to top up the tail rotor gear box, or check a chip plug. On some tours I never used it, but I never neglected to bring it. How frustrating would it be if you had been trained to carry out these elementary tasks in the field but were not equipped to carry them out?

Things can - and still do - occasionally go wrong in our industry, and it pays not to rely too heavily on that wonderful technology. Do you have more than one source for map data? You may have a GPS, but do you have a second, independent source for map data? That could mean ForeFlight, or hard-copy maps, for example. Do you have a basic set of tools to use out in the field? If a chip light comes on, do you have the ability (and the training) to remove the plug and inspect it? Mr. Murphy can impose himself on any flight at any time, but we all know that problems are most likely to arise while you are most vulnerable: over inhospitable terrain or water; or in deteriorating weather; or at the limits of your fuel; or as darkness approaches, just to name a few. Murphy has no pride, or honour.

An author, Randy Pausch, once said: “Another way to be prepared is to think negatively. Yes, I'm a great optimist but when trying to make a decision I often think of the worst case scenario. I call it 'the eaten by wolves factor.' If I do something (or did not do something), what's the most terrible thing that could happen? Would I be eaten by wolves? One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist is having a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of things I don't worry about because I have a plan in place if they do.”

The nature of our work is unpredictable enough without leaving anything more to chance. Do you have a redundant means to communicate with your base? Many operators have a satellite phone incorporated in their tracking system (or a mechanism to text using the system), in addition to a phone in a Pelican case in the back of the aircraft. With winter upon us, do you have your aircraft covers with you? In today’s tracking culture, we are unlikely to go unnoticed for very long if we have a problem. However, encourage your passengers to dress for a seasonal overnight stay outdoors and encourage them to wear footwear that will allow them to take a walk in the woods (or muskeg), at least. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, as they say.

Another author, Allan Armstrong, once said: “Champions do not become champions when they win the event but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.”

While we are quoting famous quotes about preparation, here is another: "In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." That's Dwight Eisenhower. As we become more experienced, we can start to feel like we have the expertise to deal with any situation that will arise. But as the commander of Allied forces in Europe in WWII points out, your reactions are only ever as good as the preparation work you put in beforehand.

If there was ever an industry where planning and preparation pays off it is ours, from the selection of the aircraft and its equipment to maintenance procedures, pre-flight preparation, go-no-go decisions, exercise of best judgement during the flight’s execution through shut-down. Truly, preparation and planning are the keys to a safe and successful mission. Today’s high falootin' technology is no reason to become complacent. Planning and preparation have always been the keys to success in our business. And if it can go wrong, anyway, it probably will.


Fred Jones is the president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada and a regular contributor to Helicopters magazine.



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