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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Public Service: Pressure to Fly

By Mike Redmon

There is a perceived increase in EMS accidents over the last 10 years. One reason cited for EMS having a higher accident rate than other forms of flying is that pilots are under some sort of pressure to fly. The main pressure to fly is pressure the pilot puts on himself.

There are pilots who pretend to be seagulls. They require someone to throw rocks at them to get airborne but, thankfully, they are few and far between. Most pilots love to fly. Slipping the surly bonds of earth in a helicopter is an exhilarating feeling. We hate to turn down a flight for weather or maintenance and we want to see our individual base thrive.

This applies even more to pilots at EMS bases that are struggling to stay afloat. You left the Army and moved your family for this job. Six months later management is saying every flight counts and the base may relocate or close if the numbers don’t improve. If the weather is just a hair below program minimums are you going to give it a shot?

Adding to the issue, EMS managers generally insist on weather turndown reports. The argument is that the weather turndown forms are being used to justify an IFR helicopter or location of a base. That was true where I worked but the reality varies from program to program. I’ve heard numerous horror stories of program managers’ micromanaging weather turndowns. Operational control or not, if the program manager wants a pilot gone, then the pilot will generally be gone. The customer is always right, even if he isn’t. Hopefully, these horror stories will become a relic of the past as aviation managers, with the feeble help of the FAA, establish true operational control.

Even with a safety-minded management team, some pilots will incorrectly view flights that are completed in poor weather as a measure of their own skill. This is a very dangerous attitude to have and is one of the reasons EMS has such a poor safety record. Pilots must stop being their own worst enemy. Patients have gone by ground ambulances for decades prior to EMS helicopters and will continue to do so until “Star Trek” teleporters become reality.

It is real easy to go from being the base hero for taking flights right at program minimums to being a zero as soon as something goes wrong and the weather isn’t as forecast. Many times pilots, specifically new EMS pilots, let pride stand in the way of aborting a flight short of their destination. Maybe someone landed in a field before and the lead pilot chewed them out for not doing a thorough weather check. Faced with the same situation six months later, the pilot decides, “the weather isn’t all that bad” and presses on. What everyone forgets is that a TAF is just a weatherman’s best guess. If weather forecasting were an exact science they would issue TAFs only once a day. There is no shame in aborting or landing in a field somewhere if the weather changes.

If you examine helicopter accidents in the NTSB database, there are many documented accidents of pilots catching “get-home-itis” and pushing the weather closer to their destination. Being “only 10 miles from base” shouldn’t enter into your decision-making. I’m all for getting the aircraft as close as possible to home base, but the inconvenience of being stuck at an out-station is nothing compared to risking your life and those of your co-workers. Get as far as you can without pushing the weather or violating your OpSpecs and then land. Once again, it isn’t your fault the weather turned sour.

For the most part, I enjoyed being around the medical folks and hated to disappoint them. It is a major hassle for the medcrew to be stuck in a field with a deteriorating patient. I have felt increased self-imposed pressure to continue flying once the patient was on-board. It doesn’t matter if it is a maintenance or weather issue, pilots always prefer to get the aircraft home or the patient to the receiving hospital. With all the accidents EMS has suffered in recent years, I’d be willing to bet the medcrew will respect your decision and actually feel safer flying with you.

Finally, don’t let the condition of your patient affect your judgment either. When I first started flying, I actually worried about the patient. After a short time I stopped caring if it was a newborn or a member of AARP. I finally wised up and started worrying solely about aviation issues. Personally, I think you shouldn’t even think about the patient. You weren’t the dummy out drinking and driving or the lifelong McDonald’s connoisseur who now needs a trip to the cardiac cath lab. Remember, the only pressure to fly is pressure you put on yourself.

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