Fatigue stumbles - We need to adjust our attitude toward pilot risk

Why the Flawed Flight and Duty Regulations Will Damage Industry
Corey Taylor
January 02, 2018
By Corey Taylor
Why do some movies end happily, with the appropriate music playing as the credits roll, because only the pilot died? There are so many to choose from where the pilot is introduced, often becoming more than a peripheral character, yet departs early and often gruesomely.
It seems he or she is only there to deliver the main characters, after which it’s best to reduce complication while adding some action, at the expense of the ill-fated driver.

Unfortunately, even in real life the pilots in our industry are often underappreciated, with their injury or demise going unrecognized by the public we serve. Contrast this with police officers, who, when tragically lost on the job, receive nationwide coverage and thousands of attendees at their funerals. The number of police dwarfs the number of pilots, highlighting the risk differential, yet the public reaction to a pilot death seems to indicate a lesser societal contribution – or something akin to that.

Does the apparent glamour of our industry (very debatable to those in it) somehow imply we are risk takers with little apparent public benefit? Pilots are paid far less than police by unit of time, while taking on a much greater risk. Our pilots also serve the public good, but does our commercial status somehow make us less worthy than police? Police get very generous overtime payouts while pilots spend months away from home in cabins and tents, without the slightest chance of a pension like police receive, after what we would consider a short career.

It is not my intent to disparage the law enforcement community, but to point out the different reaction when helicopter pilots are injured or killed, yet the duties of the job, and the commensurate risks, are not altogether different.

When we suffer a loss, with little public interest, outside the proximal impact, it falls to us, their peers, to be sure they are recognized for their achievement and sacrifice, often every bit as accomplished as Capt. Sully, just without the Hudson River to land in.

At the recent Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) conference in Ottawa, there was the perennial discussion (if flogging a skeletal horse can be so characterized) with Transport Canada (TC) around the new flight and duty regime, now referred to as “fatigue management.”

This nuanced change puts those in opposition to the new regs at a disadvantage, since instead of opposing changes to law, we ostensibly oppose something intended to benefit us. The media, not the best at sorting through nuances when sensationalism is so much easier to sell, will no doubt keep repeating those (false) sound bites about all the latest science supporting the changes, while our Sisyphean march continues.

A change in tack did seem to develop during the conference, when it was noted that the new rules would not apply to aerial work (702). The focus, according to TC, was always about “the traveling public.” Once again, we’re in the realm of the pilot not mattering, if this really is about safety and not about TC trying to justify the fundamentally flawed process that was used to craft (copy from Europe) the new rules. “If these rules won’t apply to 702,” exclaimed some, “then maybe we can take things that we thought of as 703 and try and run under 702 as much as possible!”

While I think it’s good that some small progress has been made, operators trying to work to a “lesser” standard in order to circumvent flawed regulations isn’t the best answer, surely?

The most disappointing part of the exchange with TC (and we are still thankful for the opportunity) occurred when the current pilot shortage was mentioned. TC stated the new regs and the pilot shortage were separate issues and unrelated. Reference was even made to the Colgan Air accident, which is beyond mystifying. Anyone who read the Colgan accident report, and didn’t get their information from the television, can tell you that fatigue was only considered as a “possible” contributing cause of the accident.

That conclusion was reached mostly due to the reported schedule of the crew and the incomprehensible actions they took with a perfectly good airplane. Reading the captain’s history solves most of that mystery, his failed check rides just part of the story. This comes full circle to the pilot shortage, since I would posit that the Colgan pilot would not have been employed at the front of that Q400 if not for the shortage to start with! So, now we are facing a current pilot shortage and are marching full steam ahead into regulations that will further reduce supply. Interesting times ahead.

Corey Taylor is the vice-president of business development for Newfoundland’s Universal Helicopters.

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