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Friday, July 1, 2011

Helicopter Pilots Must Be More

By Terry Terrell

I’ve enjoyed the high privilege of flying both helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, in both military and civilian settings, thanks to Navy, Coast Guard and Pan-Am tours of duty, additionally padded by a long list of other miscellaneous aviation activities. I consequently feel qualified to conclude that rotary wing equipment and helicopter operating environments frequently tend to demand more of their pilots than do typical “A to B” airplane operations.

Igor Sikorsky often referred to his recognition that helicopters don’t need airports, but he deliberately failed to mention that they do—in order to operate safely and acceptably across a wide spectrum of imaginable uses and from a virtually infinite selection of possible landing destinations and takeoff points—require that pilots be able to call up a flexible brand of intelligently delivered performance, not usually critical in more conventional aviation settings.

I remember once, when working on behalf of a rapidly growing Part 135 flight concern in an oil-rich Texas city, helping to establish a helicopter branch of operations within what was an inarguably thriving Learjet on-demand luxury transportation charter activity. Our plan was to “feed” 11 jets with a lone helicopter, offering discriminating customers a little something extra, aimed at approximating “door-to-door” service by picking passengers up at their residences. At the time I was armed with an extensive range of knowledge reflecting exactly how helicopters are bound by FAA rules when airborne, but I quickly gained an appreciation for the fact that rotorcraft are also obliged to abide by an almost infinitely extensive patchwork of land-based laws any time their skids make contact with terra firma.

One fellow who helped me become familiar with this reality showed up in the form of a highly irritated cowboy, charging my aircraft from his own sprawling home, right next door to my assigned passenger-customer’s place. He, sporting stylish hat and boots, and a shotgun, was ready to launch a fist-fight with a young whippersnapper in a synthetic three piece suit, rudely disturbing his neighborhood’s peace and quiet with an offensively noisy flying contraption, and the sheriff was on his side. How I was able to get him and the sheriff into my helicopter’s cabin, and have them accept a couple of diplomatically offered drinks from our onboard bar, calming them with a distracting variety of hospitality I didn’t know I could generate, I will never know, but the episode taught me a lot about staying flexible where helicopters are concerned.

On another very different occasion, during my Coast Guard years of service, I was once honored with providing standby helicopter transportation for a U.S. President in an exotic tropical locale. He elected, on behalf of attempting to economize travel activities, not to have his own Sikorskys transported for use on location. The material luxury and the prestige of the assignment associated with that trip were matched in magnitude only by the hardship challenges imposed the following week, as mission rotations had us recovering bodies from an airplane crash in the remote and desolate mountains of northern Haiti. We, as properly flexible semper paratus helicopter professionals, were allowed the heady experience of negotiating intricate working relationships at the highest levels of political sophistication one day, and were faced with wading through virtually the polar opposite environment literally the next.

Nowadays, remaining involved with helicopter activities through our civilian emergency medical transport programs continuously reminds me that flexibility, enabling the implication that rotary wing pilots must deliver more than rigid aviation discipline, will always be a key concept wherever safe and efficient operations are conducted. We devote considerable time and effort to refining crew resource management proficiencies in EMS, realizing that even carefully structured CRM concepts can occasionally, with adequate forethought and execution, be properly subject to situational modification. Since ultimately we fly single-pilot aircraft, aviation-related crew duties can occasionally be appropriately streamlined, as a function of patient related workload-saturation issues.

Helicopter pilots in virtually all conceivable working applications must plan to be regularly tasked with accommodating much more than simply flying from A to B, and good helicopter pilots will develop leadership and decision-making skills which allow them to effectively deal with the expansive assortment of expert and inexpert people who use helicopters, whatever their objectives or their own flexibilities, or inflexibilities, may be.

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