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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Legacy of a Culture

By Lee Benson

I told a story about one of my past chief pilots in my last article. His opinion, as it related to training on light turbine helicopters, was as follows: point the thing in the middle where you want to go, push the thing on the left down to make the houses bigger, pull up to make them smaller and adjust the pedals accordingly. In a moment of deadline-induced hysteria, I said push down or pull up on the thing on the right. Duh, obviously wrong. I hereby acknowledge to one and all that I was mistaken. I will also tell you that it was great fun to hear from the 50 or 60 folks that called or e-mailed me to point out my latest screw up, one example in a long line, I will add, before somebody else does. The group that contacted me included the president of a major air medical company, test pilots for one of the OEMs and several line pilots. In other words, the helicopter community. I guess my point is that all of these folks knew that they could call me on this error and laughter would erupt from both parties.

This is my world when I think about helicopter people. Whether they are shipping clerks, line boys or presidents, we are all peers in a group where respect is earned. Not because of your title, but because you have made a commitment to your calling and you do your best to do that function to the limits of your God-given talents. Tell me a person that has more right to my respect than a mechanic that has made a personnel commitment to always make his very best effort to provide you or I with a safe helicopter to fly. The president of a small Part 135 helicopter company that, upon seeing the crew seats in his brand new helicopter, realizes the seats have a safety flaw. The seats only support the pilot’s back to about one-third of the way up, and in an accident the pilot will break his back. Said president then calls the OEM and orders the optional tall utility seats for $5,000 each. True story, obviously a long time ago based on the cost of the seats. When asked about the decision the president said “my pilots, my responsibility.”

In my opinion, some of the attributes of the helicopter community that exist today relate back to the war in Vietnam. No, I am not saying that every honorable person in our community served in Vietnam. I am saying that the large influx of pilots and mechanics out of Vietnam in the late 60s and early 70s molded a culture that has prevailed in the industry for 40 years. The attitude of self-reliance and commitment to see the job through is part of it, but so is a feeling of shared experience and caring for our brothers. One of the shared experiences that crews in Vietnam experienced was “here is your mission sheet for the day, go do it.” Planning is what you did on the way to the first landing zone whether that be in a gaggle of 10 ships in a lift, or a single ship doing who knows what. In the Army at that time, multi paged go, no go, risk assessment forms were a thing of the future. In Vietnam, you, as the crew, were responsible to figure risk versus gain and performance limitations for both the aircraft and the crew. Additionally, when you made an error, you owned it. This is what led to a culture of extreme self-reliance in the pilots who returned home and were the vast majority of the pilots working for the last 40 years in the American market – sometimes to a fault.

Another shared experience for Vietnam veterans was a very hostile homecoming from our fellow citizens. California has always been my home and that very likely caused a prejudice in my view, but stories could be told. I think this led to a shared view of us against the world at a certain level and brought the helicopter community closer together on a personnel level.

So what, might you ask, is the point of all this retrospect? The answer is: I see more and more instances that tell me this culture is threatened. Not at the operational level; I still think crew guys, pilots or mechanics with a problem out in the field are going to help each other, be they competitors or not. But on the business side, I see more and more bean counters with no helicopter heart pushing policies and practices that are based on self-advancement and money, and to me that’s a huge loss.


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