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Friday, August 1, 2008

Public Safety Notebook

Lee Benson

Bumps in the Night

Millennia ago, humans gathered in caves at night for a sense of protection. In groups near an open fire, they listened to the frightening sounds of predators outside and hoped they would not become a predator’s next meal.

When the sounds got louder and closer, they stoked their fires higher, attempting to ward off the predators. Sure, man ventured outside at night, but he was never all that comfortable unless he was in a group. Man needed night vision.

Finally, in the late 1960s, the U.S. military started employing night-vision goggles (NVGs). At first, the price in accidents was high for their attempts to change the natural law of things that go bump in the night. But slowly military crews gifted with NVGs overcame the issues of darkness. Particularly when those wearing the NVGs were helicopter crews; they became the hunters at night.

Now men sit in caves and fear the sounds of hunter helicopters, when the sounds get louder, they put out their fires, for attracting attention might have a fatal ending.

What’s this got to do with today’s helicopter operations in the civil world? Up until the year 2000, I was like our predecessors in the caves. I sat in a ready room at night and hoped the alarm wouldn’t go off. If it did, I would have to go fly in the dark. Eventually I paid attention to what our friends in the military were up to and decided they must be on the right track for night operations. I proposed to the rest of the pilot staff in our organization that we take a look at NVGs. The first thing I heard was "Get a rope" from one of the pilots. He had flown with NVGs in 1977. From his experience with earlier-technology goggles, I know why he was looking for a rope and a tall tree.

We called Mike Atwood of Aviation Specialties Unlimited in Boise, Idaho, who gave a demonstration of the latest NVG technology. When the pilot with a rope came back from the demonstration flight, he was smiling. We soon had integrated NVGs into our operations.

This was like a new-found religion for me; I preached the blessings of NVGs at every opportunity. But I soon learned my brothers in the Part 135 world faced obstacles we didn’t in the public-use sector. The FAA had determined NVG technology was dangerous. Just look at the statistics from the military experience of the late 1960s and early 1970s and anyone could see that the NVG technology of the year 2000 could not possibly be trusted. (If you see a problem with that sentence, you must be paying attention.) So the FAA put up roadblocks and progressive thinkers in the industry knocked them down.

This was status quo until one day the FAA told the media it had been supporting NVG use for some time and that all night operations should take advantage of the technology. Those of us that found this a little sudden, shall we say, just raised our heads and said, "Amen!"

Until mid-May, I felt NVG use was headed in the right direction and I could go tilt at new windmills. Yes, the FAA had mandated that a second person be on goggles below 300 ft, but the ever-resourceful EMS helicopter folks countered by training the nurses or paramedics that sit in the copilot’s seat to perform that role. My wife, who is a nurse, says NVG use is not a core competency for nurses. But this probably added a sense of teamwork in the cockpit and raised the awareness of the medical crew a bit, so perhaps some overall good was achieved. I do not think it was the good the FAA had in mind, but so be it.

Then on Apr. 29 the FAA released a Safety Alert For Operators. This went into detail about "safety-sensitive" vs. "non-safety-sensitive" crewmembers and the limits of both. The bottom line was this alert would have forced the medical personnel being used to satisfy the mandate for two NVG-wearing personnel below 300 ft rule to be included in the operator’s FAA-required drug-testing program.

Imagine the adverse effects of this policy. The medical folks typically don’t work for the operator, so how did the FAA expect the operators to require these folks to abandon their constitutional rights? Would the unions for the medical folks just allow this to happen? Also, with the FAA’s determination that a nurse or paramedic is a safety crewmember on an EMS helicopter, his or her life insurance might be nullified in the event of an accident. (I will add a point I haven’t seen raised in other arguments forwarded by the EMS helicopter community: Where is the demonstrated need for this drug testing? What accident or incident occurred because the medical person in the copilot’s seat — with no aircraft controls — caused a degradation of safety in the cockpit?)

What would have been the gain in safety from by this policy? Consider the EMS operator that, for either financial or operational reasons, couldn’t comply with this alert and had to abandon NVG operations. Did you hear that bump in the dark over there? Throw another log on the fire, would you please?

As it turned out, the FAA at press time retracted this alert. That was certainly a good idea.

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