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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pressure to be Fast

By Mike Redmon

It is common in EMS for lift times to be documented by dispatch. It is also a common requirement for pilots to document any lift times over five minutes and send this information to the lead pilot and/or base manager. In business, there is a saying “you are what you measure.”

It may seem natural for managers to want to know why a lift-off took longer than a pre-determined amount of time. Personally, I feel that using lift times as a metric isn’t worth the paper they are written on because of the many variables involved in launching a flight. Was the aircraft inside the hangar or outside? Was the aircraft already on standby? Did the pilot need the time to actually evaluate the weather? Was the medcrew “slow” in getting out to the aircraft? The arbitrary time of five minutes is not a number borne of science. My main issue is with the paperwork required to be turned in by the pilot. Some pilots, especially new EMS pilots, will inadvertently sacrifice safety to avoid explaining why they didn’t meet their employer’s expectations.

How long does it take a helicopter to lift for a flight? It takes whatever it takes. Once again, it takes whatever it takes. It is a task-oriented procedure, not a time-oriented procedure. In the past, I have found myself wanting to skip using the checklist, doing a poor walk-around, and generally trying to speed things up because I felt “behind” in the launch time. Good judgment generally evolves from poor judgment and I eventually wised up due to the errors I found myself making. I easily could have been a statistic with the items I missed during my rushed pre-launch preparations.

Hurrying to get off the ground can cause mistakes and increase the likelihood for errors. You always hear about the pilot who forgot to unplug the shoreline cord, remove an inlet cover, or hot started an engine.

For example, I know a guy who took off with less than 20 minutes of fuel and didn’t realize it until he got the low-fuel lights shortly after lift-off. The checklist specifically said to check fuel amount, but as an EMS check airman once told me, “who has time to read the checklist?” So again we come back to the reality of saving a minute, but crashing or damaging the aircraft. The irony of the whole thing occurs when you rush to the hospital only to discover it will be another 30 minutes until the patient can be transported.

Professionalism demands that the pilot be prepared for any flight by having your jacket and other gear already in the aircraft, keeping your bladder empty, seat and pedal positions correct, and radios set up.

Additionally, don’t be lazy and leave the aircraft in the hangar when it should be outside. The less you do at work, the less you want to do, so I understand how hard it can be to haul the aircraft out of the hangar at five in the morning.

Other than that, there is nothing else you can do to speed up the process. Weather-related crashes are the number one killer in EMS so it is crucial to check the weather for as long as it takes. You have to do an effective, deliberate, and hands-on walk-around. The FAR’s state you must use the checklist to start. Your passengers rely on you to not cut corners. All aircraft passengers are more concerned with safety than on-time performance.

Once you are ready to lift you still should take your time. There have been many episodes of pilots taking off with one engine at idle, with SAS systems turned off, and engines quitting at 40 feet because the fuel transfer pumps weren’t switched on.

A final check of critical items prior to pulling pitch is essential when flying EMS. It is amazing what can be missed when you go from a deep sleep to lifting a helicopter off an elevated helipad five minutes later.

Lastly, you should always do an engine instruments check at an IGE hover prior to departing. This will give you a chance to reconfirm that the engines are working properly prior to pulling into an OGE takeoff. Let that No. 2 engine quit during a three-foot hover over the helipad instead of at 50 feet over the hospital parking lot with no place to go. I always shake my head when I see a helicopter snatched off the ground and straight into the air without a hover pause.

Always remember that if something goes wrong it will be the pilot who answers to the FAA, not anyone else.

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