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Friday, April 1, 2011

Cockpit Complacency

By Mike Redmon

The easiest job I ever had was flying EMS. It was also the hardest job I ever had. Low stress and a lack of oversight made it a great job. Check the weather, preflight, maybe wash the helicopter, brief the crew, complete some company forms, and then just hang out for the next 10.5 hours. That lack of supervision also made it hard to stay disciplined and do what needed to be done. Many times I would catch myself getting lazy. In EMS it can become real easy to blow off studying emergency procedures, doing a complete preflight/postflight, or writing up maintenance discrepancies.

A lack of discipline can be seen in some pilots’ flying. During Army flight school the IP wouldn’t let you hover and change a radio frequency. He would make you land first. How many of us think nothing of reaching up and switching a frequency, pushing a button, reading something on our kneeboard, or programming the GPS during a hover? I’ve done it myself on numerous occasions. Is that the correct way to fly or the lazy way to fly? There are numerous examples in the NTSB accident database of pilot’s being distracted and hovering into an object. It takes discipline but we must always stay 100 percent focused on physically flying the aircraft when close to the ground.

Do you constantly evaluate your options during landing and takeoff? Do you mentally think about your takeoff and landing decision points? Even in single-engine helicopters the concept is the same, always knowing your options if the engine quits. Departing an airfield with an altitude over airspeed takeoff shows a lack of understanding in helicopter performance profiles. Departing vertically over the hangar gets you on course 30 seconds faster but you don’t see United Airlines departing with a 20-knot tailwind so they can get to their destination faster. There are very few instances where you should land with a tailwind. But you see pilots do it all the time. I’m not immune either—I’ve also landed with a tailwind on multiple occasions. My only excuse is laziness mixed with a little bit of stupidity.

Once a pilot becomes complacent it can become a slippery slope. Overlooking the important rules and procedures then becomes easier. There have been fatal EMS accidents where pilots decided to continue to the destination rather than make the much harder decision to land in a field. Whether they must wait for the weather to improve or maintenance to come, pilots have unfortunately decided to purposely break the rules.

There is a saying in aviation that all rules and regulations are written in blood. Rules and regulations refer to your company Opspec, Ops Manual, FARs, and local procedures. As professionals we all must strive to adhere to the rules to the best of our ability. It doesn’t matter if a procedure is “stupid” or that no one will care if we don’t do the right thing. I had a nurse manager say she should be more involved in aviation decisions since some pilots purposely ignored the rules and couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing. For the incidents in question, she unfortunately was right.

I don’t believe a pilot begins flying EMS with the intention of breaking the rules or getting lackadaisical. There are various ways the adherence to rules begins to slip. In EMS it generally starts with maintenance. You find an aircraft discrepancy and decide to not write it in the maintenance log. The fact is that at many operations, maintenance discrepancies are just passed on verbally until the mechanic can fix them If you don’t care enough to write up a problem then don’t be angry at your mechanic when he doesn’t care enough to fix it. Also, you might dread crawling under the aircraft to pull the fuel sample. Three months into your first EMS job you convince yourself that a fuel sample every other day is just as good. No one but you knows if you actually do it or not. A couple of years go by and you barely remember how many drain valves there are because you haven’t sumped the fuel in 18 months. How about aircraft run up procedures? There isn’t another pilot in the cockpit so you get into the bad habit of always abbreviating the hydraulic checks or just not doing them at all.

Everyone is looking to improve EMS safety. It starts with each individual pilot. It is a hallmark of professionalism to do the right thing when no one is watching. We should all strive to prove that aforementioned nurse manager wrong.

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