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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Editor's Notebook

James T. McKenna

Heroes, One Solution and One Mess

This month finds America examining its response--or lack thereof--to Hurricane Katrina. As that occurs, we can draw comfort that the helicopter community is applying lessons learned from that storm by increasing the understanding and appreciation of rotorcraft and their capabilities. One recent event unrelated to Katrina reminds us of how big a challenge that remains.

We are in the midst of renewed criticism about the delayed, uncoordinated response to the hurricane that devastated much of the U.S. Gulf Coast. A U.S. House of Representatives report in mid-February, entitled "A Failure of Initiative," faulted everyone from President Bush to local officials in the states for actions and inaction that prolonged the suffering of Katrina's victims and contributed to the deaths of some. That was to be followed by separate reports from the Senate and White House.

In this process of extracting "lessons learned" from the response to this disaster, it is important to look at what went right. Helicopter operations clearly did. Within hours of Katrina's passing, scores were in the skies of Louisiana and Mississippi assessing damage, rescuing victims and arranging relief for others.

They came from the National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard, Army and Navy. They came from air ambulance operations and from law enforcement agencies and commercial and private operators. They came from nearly every type of helicopter operator. They came from nearly everywhere in North America. They came from Asia, and from Europe.

They came without concern for compensation or recognition. They came to save lives.

The helicopters came despite the obstacles that the "managers" of the Katrina response threw up to their use. Bureaucrats told some operators they couldn't fly to the aid of the storm's victims without the right paperwork, guidance that most thankfully ignored. Some were told to stand down because the response had been federalized. Some were threatened with punishment if they dispatched aircraft and crews to the Gulf Coast region without permission.

Had all those helicopters not come, more people would have died and many others would have been stranded on rooftops for days longer. In many cases, helicopters were the only means of rescuing Katrina's victims. In this month's pages, we share the accounts of some of those who came. We present their stories not because they are the heroes among the hundreds of helicopter folks who brought succor in Katrina's wake, but because they are typical of the hundreds of heroes who did so.

The Helicopter Assn. International is working to remove obstacles from the next response to a major disaster. It is compiling a database of helicopters available to disaster managers in a bid to help them and the federal, state and local officials with whom they work better grasp the unique, invaluable capabilites rotorcraft bring to emergency response. HAI President Matthew Zuccaro explains on page 53 that the group is doing this because it is clear no one else will.

We were reminded of how much those in government need to learn about helicopters in late January, when the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued its long-awaited special investigation report into helicopter EMS operations.

The EMS safety problems are significant, and the board called for important steps to address them. It urged the FAA to move beyond "guidance" to require better risk-management and dispatch controls in EMS operations. It also called for broader use of technology like terrain-awareness and warning systems (TAWS).

But the report smacked of closing the barn door after the horses have fled. The NTSB took so long to issue it--more than a year, by some accounts--that the FAA and industry already have taken major steps to address safety problems. More importantly, in presenting their findings to the presidential appointees on the board who must approve by a majority any recommendations, NTSB staff members displayed a fundamental ignorance of the EMS safety problem.

They could not answer, for instance, how many EMS aircraft are flying in the United States. In fact, they knew almost nothing of a federally funded database to track that number. They called for greater use of TAWS, but couldn't say if such systems had been approved for use on helicopters. When asked by a board member to compare commercial aircraft to others that fly such missions, such as those of the Coast Guard, one investigator said there was no comparison. "The Coast Guard aircraft are like Rolls-Royces," he said. That might surprise Coast Guard brass who last year told Congress that severe HH-65 engine problems were limiting mission capabilities and jeopardizing the lives of their crews.

The NTSB can't dictate; it protects safety solely through the strength of its arguments, which very often are impeccable. Not so with the presentation of this report, whose flaws invite critics to ignore otherwise important safety recommendations.

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