Safety & Training
January 15, 2014 By Michael Bellamy
Recently, I received a call from an old friend and flying cohort from my early Yukon flying days.
Recently, I received a call from an old friend and flying cohort from my early Yukon flying days. When I was starting out in this business, Ray Conant was the “go-to guy” for many of the helicopter operations that were still in their infancy.
With more than 14,000 hours, Ray is practically a legend in the Yukon, so when he asked me to critique his book, I was flattered to say the least. What I initially expected was an autobiography, but what arrived was Helicopter Flying for Fun and Profit written in lesson form. Ray was offering to share his experiences and introduce prospective students to all manner of perils and lessons he had learned during his long career.
I thumbed through the book, identifying people and places and pausing to read a few paragraphs that captured my interest. My first impression was not entirely enthusiastic. It was my early experience that operators often oversold the capabilities of the helicopter in the interest of company survival, leaving the pilot to devise a modus operandi that could get the job done. Unfortunately, it left little room for error. Instructing pilots on this process and presenting the material in lesson form, would not go over too well with strict safety procedures that are now in place. But I continued reading.
As the book progresses, Ray selects worthwhile experiences from his career, describes the job, tools or type of helicopter he worked with, and even describes the weather conditions he encountered. He then goes on to describe how the task progressed, teaching himself in the process how to safely determine the limits of his machine and role as a pilot. The lessons and procedures learned are openly shared with the reader. With every page, I found I was modifying my first impression as I was learning about the development of some of the operations I was to participate in just a few years later. An old cliché came to mind: “Learn from the past to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.”
The actual flying experiences Ray discusses are quite interesting. With northern mining operations, for example, he recounts more than a few medevac experiences. Most of us can identify with the apprehension felt when confronted with flights into very marginal conditions. This is especially true when we are prone to accept more risk when someone’s life is at stake. As I progressed further into the book, I became more interested in the sequence Ray used to evaluate risk and what he did to mitigate the hazards. In spite of marginal weather conditions, basic flight instruments and very limited performance from the helicopter, Ray managed to complete flights safely, without fanfare, again and again.
It brought up an intriguing question: Was reliance on good airmanship so much more prevalent then, or have we become so immersed in rules and regulations that we are now removed from this tactic, replacing it with strict adherence to formal directives?
Manufacturers have responded with ever more powerful helicopters enhanced with redundancy and all manner of safety devices not available just a few short years ago. In many cases, this affords pilots the luxury of being able to replace skill and cognitive judgment with automation.
I was reminded of a report I had read from airline manufacturers stating that in spite of ever increasing capability with computer automated flight systems, lack of basic flying skills were being identified in more and more accidents. Case in point was the Air France A330 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. In this accident, the pilots were unable to identify a stall. Another example was the Colgan Air Dash 8 crash in Buffalo on Feb. 12, 2009, in which the pilots mishandled the airplane in icing conditions. What is abundantly implied here is that airlines had become safer mechanically, but the pilots were so overloaded with interpreting extraneous information in an effort to comply with published procedures that flying skills were abandoned.
For day-to-day helicopter operations, computerization is still a long way away. I have witnessed operators mandating online safety questionnaires that once completed, now dictate whether or not a flight should be undertaken. This exercise, however, should remind the pilot of typical considerations, not make the decision for him.
It’s clear that Ray’s experiences vividly demonstrate the process by which a pilot gains the ability to accurately evaluate risk. As inheritors, we can disregard the past lessons as no longer applicable, but is that good risk management? No, it is not.
A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.