The Eternal Optimist
Reflections on the Best – and Worst – in our Industry
I consider myself an optimist. The glass is always half full – and it can always get worse.
Honestly, I must confess that I tend to remember the best and most positive experiences in our industry as I look back on my 30 years of flying helicopters. They say, “Unless you have bad times, you can’t propoerly appreciate the good times.”
Maybe the best experiences assume a heightened significance when they are considered against a few bad ones.
I remember back in the late ’90s, I took a couple of years off while my daughters were young, and I had to decide whether to go back to flying, or to turn that page in my life.
I decided to go back, but I left it to the last minute to try to find some contract work, so I ended up having to take what was left over in the fall. It was September, and I ended up working for a junior mining exploration company in northern Quebec.
The camp consisted of eight samplers, and a camp geologist, who was also given the role of camp cook. Lets just say, that he should have stayed with geology.
I had no engineer with me on the Long Ranger that I was operating, which obviously made things challenging enough. The nearest engineer was in another camp, 60 miles away.
The weather was also in a word, terrible. It rained every day – all day. My daily inspections were conducted every night in the rain with a headlamp; it was northern Quebec’s prelude to winter.
The samplers went out every morning in the rain, and after putting them out, I returned to camp each day wondering if I would be able to pick them up at dinner time.
To make matters worse, they didn’t have survival bags – just rain gear, which served to intensify the pressure on me to retrieve them at the end of the day.
To make things even more unpleasant, there was always something going wrong in camp. One day, in the field, a couple of the samplers decided to “practice with their bear spray,” and somehow ended up getting sprayed, themselves, and managed to get burns on their arms in the process.
Most nights, in the wee hours of the morning, black bears would make their way into camp, and our sleep would be broken by the camp geologist firing the rifle to scare them off – but ony, temporarily.
Each night I wondered if his shooting was really any better than his cooking. These were the days before satellite phones. We had an HF radio, but if we took a four-wheeler, and drove 45 minutes through a labyrinth of trails to the top of a nearby mountain. Here, we could occasionally find a cell signal, but there were certainly no certainties with this plan.
I can remember asking myself, “Was coming back to the industry a big mistake?”
Although admittedly, I should have spoken up at the time, I didn’t. In fact, I would argue that there are times when you must speak up. It was an accumulation of many small issues – any one of which could have been resolved reasonably easily.
The fact that the customer was underfunded, and the accumulation of those factors made the scenario seem overwhelming, and it became actively hazardous for us all.
If something had really gone seriously wrong on that job – someone got left out overnight, or a weather-related accident – I would have been held responsible for not having done something about it in advance.
The camp was a case study in human factor accident causes. A corollary to my, “It can always be worse.” Mantra, is “It often does get worse.”
For example, human factors problems tend to stack up, making the next, related problem even more likely.
It was unfortunate that the first-job-back after my break was so absolutely dismal, but that job was the low-water mark for me. It was never as bad before – or since.
We all need to have the courage to speak with the customer to resolve the issues, and if they go unaddressed, then call the base and ask the company to contact the customer. Most importantly as professionals, we need to stop flying when any one item or an accumulation of items, starts to make us feel uncomfortable.
Fred Jones is the president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada and a regular contributor to Helicopters magazine.
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