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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Public Safety Notebook

Lee Benson

Passing On Lessons Learned

From time to time, when I least expect it, the helicopter gods will turn my comfortable little world upside down. This in turn will force me to reappraise how I practice the art of flying a helicopter or think about how I fit into the grand scheme of helicopter things.

When I was a line pilot, making my living flying every day, this was usually a short lesson. I would be on a project somewhere doing what I always did, flying the way that I am comfortable and then either the lighting inside the helicopter or outside would change to some ugly color and there I would be with color blindness, tunnel vision and tachycardia. In other words, scared. Usually, if this was an inside color event, the colors would change from green to yellow to red or worse, straight from green to red with an accompaniment of unusual sounds or, in a couple of instances, no sound at all. Outside color events went from normal scenery to progressively grayer tones followed by all grey.

Whether inside or outside color events are more frightening depends on what’s around and below you at the time. The redeeming quality of these events were they were usually of very short duration and the results — good, bad or indifferent — were immediate. Hopefully the lesson offered up by the gods were learned and I went forward with an altered sense of respect for all things helicopter.

I no longer have the blessings of being a line pilot and have moved on to the dark side of management and now a consultant. The result is that the lessons inflicted upon me aren’t color-coded anymore and it takes a lot more time for the results to become apparent, if they ever do.

All of this became more focused to me a few weeks ago. I had the honor of being in Europe as the chairman for a conference on helicopter firefighting. The day started well; a room full of enthusiastic firefighting pilots and others gathered for the conference. The first speaker was Matt Zuccaro, president of the Helicopter Assoc International. Zuccaro is also a prime force behind the International Helicopter Safety Team. This team of dedicated helicopter professionals is attempting to lower the helicopters accident rate around the world. A meeting of this team, which I had attended the day before, was held in this same area of Europe. Zuccaro addressed our group with an impassioned presentation of why safety is so important to our industry and how each of us needs to be proactive about our personal responsibility in this area. I thought the group received Zuccaro’s message well and the conference went forward from there.

Late in the day there was a demonstration of aerial firefighting scheduled in the local area. As a group of maybe 400 people looked on, a pilot with a externally slung fire bucket made a turn of no less than 75-deg angle of bank in good trim and despite his best efforts, all turned out well. On the next pass this pilot made a similar turn but I think was slightly out of trim. The bucket went looping upwards and missed the tail rotor by a VERY small margin. To make matters worse, this all happened with several firefighters on the ground below.

Let’s review. The last time I looked in any flight manual, loss of tail rotor blades and gear box in a 75-deg angle of bank at 100 ft AGL is not covered. This could have been a major catastrophe for the pilot and others. Since I was very visible at this conference due to my chairmanship and my past position in firefighting, a lot of folks turned to me for input on what they had just seen. I think they all knew the answer, but were stunned by the potential reality of it and were looking for outside verification. My immediate reaction was "Lord, please don’t put me in the middle of this."

Quite frankly being in Europe as an American I felt anything I said would be taken as arrogance. I worried about what the commercial aspects of expressing my opinion would be for the customer for whom I was working. Several people asked what you would do as a chief pilot if this occurred. The best I could come up with was, "If a pilot did something that stupid at my last employer, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to act. The pilot staff would have addressed it with the pilot in question before I had a chance."

This thought makes me proud of the organization that I used to work for, but its lack of specificity and my lack of commitment towards safety has bothered me ever since. What do I owe the helicopter industry? What do all of us who are now in senior positions or looked upon as leaders owe to the industry? Is it reasonable to say "I put in my 40 years of effort, someone paid me a check and now I’m even".

I don’t know about you but the helicopter industry has given me a lifetime of work that I truly enjoyed. I want the helicopter industry to be better for those who follow because I passed this way. I should have sought out the pilot and tried to make him see what could have happened.

What would you have done?

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