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Words Not to Live By

For this edition of my Helicopters column I present my loyal readers with a good old-fashioned rant responding to this phrase: “He died doing what he loved.”


May 15, 2013
By Walter Heneghan

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For this edition of my Helicopters column I present my loyal readers with a good old-fashioned rant responding to this phrase: “He died doing what he loved.”

Oh, how I hate this phrase. “The devastated family of a climber who plunged to his death has spoken of how he died, ‘doing what he loved.’ ”

Here’s another: “The family of a canoeist who died after his kayak became trapped in debris on a raging beck said yesterday he died doing what he loved.” Or this, a bit closer to home: The pilot of a plane that crashed during a charity medical flight last week will be farewelled in a funeral. “The reality is, he went out on a bit of a high, doing what he loved, and doing something that he really believed in.” And finally, the most tragic circumstance of all: “. . .[the pilot], a combat pilot in Vietnam who was days from retirement, was at the controls of a medical helicopter with [two] flight nurses . . . but he hit rough weather just 30 miles out and was turning back when the helicopter nosedived into a field Monday night. He had four more shifts to go before he retired. [Of the flight nurse this was said] When I think of [him], I think of family,” she said. “That was the thing that was most important. He was just proud of what he did. He was good at it; [he] died doing what he loved to do.”

I could go on. Over the past year, I have read this phrase dozens of times from a wide swath of newspaper columns, blogs and magazine articles – and at least one time too often in reference to a helicopter accident. This is what I think: it is pure, unadulterated codswallop. No normal sane person sets out for work or play thinking that, “Today is a good day to die.” We don’t say goodbye to our wives and girlfriends and children not expecting to see them later that day (or at the end of the tour).

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Now, I will admit that the surviving loved ones may get some solace in believing that their husband/son/daughter died engaged in an enjoyable pursuit, but as professional pilots we need to be on guard for this fatalistic approach to our jobs. We need to set out, every day, to prevent those who know us from saying such a thing. Now, how can we do that?

Dr. Tony Kern, the respected author and speaker, has written widely about the pilot’s role in safety through his prescient books, Blue Threat and The Global War on Error. During the recent CHC Safety & Quality Summit in Vancouver, Dr. Kern highlighted his most recent work, “Going Pro,” a treatise on professionalism and why the aviation industries need to overtly and proactively embrace the concept.

He writes of the various stages of professional development, from learning the trade to occupational excellence, and provides a plausible roadmap for personal, professional development. In my view, he makes a lot of sense. I have written of common-sense safety steps in previous columns: the IMSAFE checklist; fatigue management, controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) awareness; the “git-er-dun” attitude. Some of these are tips; others, traps. But they should all be in our conscious thoughts every day we go flying.

Internal company safety and quality audits can reveal systemic weaknesses in your organization. Learn from the observations and become better. For multi-crew operations, good crew resource management training is invaluable, especially if it involves our customers. Threat and error management awareness is a newer concept that also bears consideration. The University of Texas studies of airline Line Operations Safety Audits (LOSA), have shown that for airline crews, there is an average of two crew errors and two external threats per flight segment.

So, even in some of the most regimented and standardized cockpits in aviation, threats and pilot errors are common. LOSA studies present a real challenge in single-pilot ops – where most of us spend our days – but it stands to reason that we are being subjected to similar or greater numbers of threats and errors.

So, here is my challenge to you: challenge one another to increase your personal commitment to enhanced professional development this season. Take the Aviation Professional Pledge championed by Dr. Kern: I pledge to remain vigilant, not only of my own performance, but also for identifying, reporting, and if possible, correcting all threats to the safety and integrity of my proud, chosen profession (www.surveymonkey.com/s/AviationProfessionalism-Pledge ). And let’s work together so that we all go home to those we love instead of having them say that we died doing something we love.


Walter Heneghan is the VP of Safety and Quality at Canadian Helicopters. A passionate advocate for aviation safety and sound risk management, the veteran pilot presents his regular column for Helicopters magazine.


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