Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Safety comes from the top down: HAI’s Zuccaro

Aug. 5, 2014, Alexandria, Va. - I notice that when talking about safety, we tend to focus on field personnel ˜ pilots, mechanics, and dispatchers. This makes sense, as they are on the front lines of safety. But let's discuss other critical safety stakeholders: owner-operator's and their management, along with the end user, or customer. These groups play a big part in safety by creating the proper safety culture and supporting the safety decision making of field personnel.


As an operator and safety consultant, I have had on many occasions the opportunity to call on other operators. Many of those visits were troubling to me.

My visit would begin with the management team, where I would be briefed about the operator's total commitment to safety, complete with a review of their safety policies and programs. Then I would travel to the operator's field locations, where the pilots, mechanics, and dispatchers told another story.

I would be advised that all the listed safety initiatives did exist but on many occasions were overlooked. Or, because of customer influence or economic considerations, management sometimes applied pressure on field personnel to attempt flights with identified safety concerns.

It is easy to support safety in the abstract when nothing is on the line. It gets much tougher to say "We're grounded" when you are risking a contract, business relationship, or significant economic loss. A lack of commitment to safety at times like these can produce catastrophic results. And really, if you can't make safety your highest priority at those critical moments, you do not really have a safety program or just culture within your organization.

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The other obligation of owner-operators and management is to educate their customers about safety. Inform them about why you are making a no-go decision or acting to manage flight risks. In my experience, when fully informed about the hazards and their effect on flight conditions, most customers appreciate your efforts to keep them safe and alive.

It is also a good idea to establish with customers a clear understanding as to who has operational control of the aircraft. While customers can and should be engaged in flight risk management, they also must understand that the operator, by U.S. regulation, holds final authority for the flight.

An accident I am familiar with from long ago provides a sad example of what can happen when safety is downgraded from being the No. 1 priority. A contract customer requested from its helicopter provider an evening charter flight in the New York City area. The operator reviewed the flight parameters and turned down the flight because of weather. Keep in mind, this no-go decision was made by an operator with access to a two-person crew, both qualified and current to operate under instrument flight rules (IFR), flying a twin-engine IFR-certified helicopter with a fully coupled autopilot.

The operator was then contacted by a senior executive of the customer. He was very upset with the no-go decision and urged the operator to conduct the flight, noting that the operator's actions put the contract at risk. The operator advised the executive that his company was paying a lot of money for safe, professional transportation, which the operator's pilots could not provide in the current weather conditions. The flight would not be going.

After the customer abruptly ended the conversation, he requested the flight with another local charter operator. This operator accepted the IFR night flight with a single-engine VFR (visual flight rules) aircraft. Because the customer's policy was to request two pilots, the operator summoned to act as copilot another helicopter pilot, who was not on the operator's certificate and not current in the aircraft.

The two pilots maneuvered VFR through the IFR weather, arrived at the pickup point, loaded the passengers, and departed. The flight lasted a short time before the aircraft flew into the ocean, killing all on board.

Had the customer truly understood the first operator's decision to not go, I honestly believe he would not have called the second operator. Oh, and the first operator, who turned down the flight, not only kept the contract with the customer but actually gained more business.

So how about it, owner-operators? Do you, your management, and your customers support the decisions of your pilots, mechanics, and other field personnel? Do you only operate when you can do so safely and professionally? Do you really walk the walk or just talk the talk? It can be the difference between life and death.


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