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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Focus on the Task at Hand

By Andrew Parker

NTSB’s investigation into an August 2011 helicopter EMS crash in Missouri (see story, page 16) made national headlines in early April after the safety board named text messaging and multitasking as one of the key factors that contributed to the Eurocopter AS350 B2 accident. Four people, including the pilot, died as a result of the incident, which has the distinction of being the first commercial aircraft crash where investigators cited texting as part of the probable cause. NTSB also noted pilot fatigue, a miscalculation of remaining fuel and improper training leading to the pilot failing to initiate an emergency autorotation procedure as a four-pronged chain of poor decisions that led to the crash.

According to the report, investigators reviewed cell phone records that indicated “the pilot sent and received multiple personal text messages throughout the day, including during time periods when the helicopter was in flight and while it was on the ground” at one of the hospital stops. The pilot’s personal texting, which took place while flying, during pre-flight checks and while making a crucial decision about whether to continue the mission “was a self-induced distraction that took his attention away from his primary responsibility to ensure safe flight operations.” In addition, “although there is no evidence that the pilot was texting at the time of the engine failure, his texting while airborne violated the company’s cell phone use policy,” the board’s report states.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman’s point about multitasking becoming a larger problem across all sectors of transportation is worth repeating. She noted that whether you’re driving your personal car, flying an EMS helicopter or operating another type of vehicle, “the focus must be on the task at hand: safe transportation.”

Living in the Washington, D.C. area, I was not surprised to learn that my fellow drivers recently topped Los Angeles for the worst traffic in the United States, according to a February 2013 report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. This is on top of an Allstate Insurance report during 2012 that studied the auto insurance claims of America’s 200 largest cities and found that residents of the nation’s capital get into collisions on average once every 4.7 years. This means they’re a whopping 112.1 percent more likely to be involved in an accident than the typical driver in the U.S., who wrecks his or her car once every 10 years. D.C. ranks first, Baltimore second at 87.9 percent, and other areas surrounding Washington to include Alexandria (62.6 percent more likely) and Arlington (53 percent) in Virginia placed in the top 25, at 7th and 12th, respectively.

Most people in the general population are attentive and avoid distractions when behind the wheel of a car, but it seems not as likely among those drivers around the nation’s capital. Of course, ground-based travel is an apples-to-oranges comparison to aviation, as the percentage of attentive pilots is a lot higher among aircraft operators due to much better training and the potential of more serious consequences from higher speeds and the law of gravity.

But for those of us who are prone to the occasional bout of human nature and short spells of distracting behavior when operating a vehicle, despite the building evidence that this is a dangerous—and sometimes deadly—practice: This accident investigation (and the rise in car crashes related to texting) has caused me to re-examine my “focus on the task at hand” when operating a vehicle. I’m shutting down the cell phone and eliminating any potential distractions before turning the key to start the car. What will you do?

International Presence

It gives me great pleasure to welcome Andrew Drwiega into an expanded consulting role with Rotor & Wing under the new title of International Bureau Chief. Formerly Military Editor, Andrew has been writing for a number of years for aviation and defense publications, including serving as Editor-in-Chief of Defence Helicopter in the UK for seven years. He’s also reported from Afghanistan and Iraq—something that takes a commitment to journalism far beyond the basics of the profession. On top of continuing to write about his specialization in military rotorcraft, Andrew will increase his coverage of civil markets and across the spectrum of the roles that helicopters play.

Rotor & Wing has always been an international magazine since its first issue went to press in 1966. In addition to our existing global coverage, with Andrew’s increased role will come more in-depth stories from locations around the world, including Asia, South America, the Middle East and other emerging helicopter markets. Just in 2013 alone, Andrew has already travelled to Australia, India, around Europe, and most recently to Quad-A in the U.S. Other planned trips later this year include to Indonesia, Dubai and France for the Paris Air Show, along with a couple spots near his home base outside London.

To all the students out there still deciding on a career path: If circumnavigating the planet seems like an ideal job to you, then I’d caution that you go to work, not to sightsee. And you only get to do it by reporting original, timely news and features that cannot be found with a quick scan of the web. But if this still sounds like fun, then join our ranks and become a journalist. The world could use (a whole lot) more good ones like Andrew Drwiega.

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