Raising the Training Bar
The Importance of Low Visibility, Scenario-Based Decision-Making
The more we do things, the easier they become and, more importantly, the more normal they seem. Pushing the limits has been something pilots have struggled with since 1903, and none are immune.
A few years ago, I departed Victoria airport and was proceeding northwards through Sansum Narrows in what were obviously degrading weather conditions. Visibility was dropping, the ceiling lowered and rain was swirling around the edges of the front bubble while leaving those streams of what looks like viscous water on the side windows, which can have an almost hypnotic effect. I could feel my grip on the cyclic getting tighter and started to slump down in my seat in an attempt to see under the clouds that I was skimming.
This is the point where the internal conversation usually begins, which can be a source of some embarrassment (and elevated stress levels amongst aircraft occupants) when an overly sensitive intercom shares that mental struggle with the passengers. This is probably when I should have turned around, as I still had enough visibility to make a turn with reference to a shoreline. But I thought if I could just make it a mile or two further, the weather would improve and I would be past (under) the massive powerlines that feed electricity to the Island from the mainland.
The more we put ourselves into situations approaching overload, the more likely it is we will be faced with additional pressures we’re no longer able to deal with. Such was the case on this day as suddenly, at an altitude of around 200 feet, airspeed of 40 kts and with visibility under half a mile, the tail rotor driveshaft sheared. The sense of being almost ejected from the pilot’s seat was incredible, but I have to give myself credit for my quick reaction in letting go of the collective and diving across the centre console to grab the drink I had placed on the co-pilot side floor before it spilled its contents.
Yes, I was in a simulator, or more specifically a “Flight Training Device” or FTD. There was no motion component to this device yet my brain had been so completely fooled when the driveshaft sheared that I thought my drink was going to fall over and spill. As I reflected on that flight and the physical reactions my subconscious brain was causing in my body, it was apparent that the realism of this experience was as close to real life as you can get without actually being in an aircraft, in a situation one should never be in. And all for under $200,000 delivered, with an operating cost under $100 per hour.
FTD-based low visibility and scenario-based decision-making training should be mandatory in Canada with what is available in terms of training aids and their associated cost. I’m sure somebody can nitpick (and will) the details about motion and fidelity to a given type of aircraft, but the counter point to that is “what do we do now”?
Currently low visibility training, coupled with pilot decision making is mandatory for commercial pilots in Canada, especially when a company wishes to exercise the rights of the Ops Spec for flight down to one half mile. We go out in a helicopter on what is often a blue sky day, ask the pilot to estimate half a mile and then practise doing turns to get out of bad weather – all while pretending the overwhelming peripheral cues don’t exist. This is not realistic and, I daresay, almost useless. In comparison to what low-cost FTDs can bring to the table, the required inflight training is like learning to swim from the deck of the pool.
Since low-cost technology is available that is almost sure to help prevent accidents by helping pilots know when to call it a day, it seems obvious this type of training should be required in Canada. At the very least, this type of training would be a far better substitute than training in a classroom and an aircraft in good weather, for those with access to such devices. Unfortunately, this is not the case in our current operating environment. An operator still has to conduct training in classroom and an aircraft in order to comply with Canadian laws, regardless of how much superior training they conduct. This means an operator pays twice for the same training, with the more expensive portion being the one of little comparable benefit. Operators struggling to make ends meet can’t afford to pay twice. So, once again safety suffers in favour of compliance.
Corey Taylor is vice-president of Global Business and Product Development for Great Slave Helicopters.
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