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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Safety Watch: Don’t Be Bullied

Bullying is a topic often spotlighted across almost every venue within common ground-bound American news media, but one aspect of this disruptive behavioral phenomenon somewhat surprisingly occurs far too often within rotary wing aviation operations. This column has regularly presented a running suggestion that those who operate in helicopter aviation activities not allow themselves to be coerced into undertaking tasks which threaten to compromise safety margins unacceptably, but pressures to accommodate users of helicopter services, certainly to include bullies, will always be a familiar and occasionally ominous part of what we do. Consequently, we seem destined to continue observing an endless succession of mishaps, or near mishaps, which frequently share cause factors traceable back to demands assertively made, even if inadvertently, by those with more confidence than expertise regarding what helicopters can and cannot actually do.

I remember a well-known and very aggressive newspaper photographer in one of our major cities a few years ago having chartered a helicopter in order to acquire what he imagined would be a distinctive visual perspective of a residential property he wanted to display graphically in a news magazine. As is common with inexperienced helicopter users, one of his project priorities was minimization of cost, so he settled into an agreement with a low-time pilot who had access to a very small piston powered two-place aircraft. The newsman, of course, showed up on the morning of the flight with lots of equipment and only vague plans to “see what we can do.” After stuffing gear wherever room allowed, they lumbered off, and were able to navigate to their destination without undue complication, but it turns out that the perspective the photographer ended up insisting upon positioned the already stressed helicopter with its tail into an inconveniently stiff breeze, at an altitude which put it deep into the red zones of its height-velocity graphs.

It will never be known whether or not the pilot was correctly uncomfortable with trying to hover in such a poorly situated out-of-ground-effect configuration of flight, but it was reported, since the photographer survived, that the pilot hadn’t refused any positioning requests. It can also be deductively concluded that control of the helicopter had been at some point catastrophically lost, since the aircraft was observed from the ground to have descended very rapidly to the scene of its own crash, ironically destroying by fire the property that was the subject of the photo shoot in the first place.

Closer to home, at least from a personal experience perspective, I was once assigned a mission out of Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico, to assist a vessel in distress, reportedly taking on water about 30 miles north of San Juan. We were able to quickly arrive on scene to find a beautiful 50-foot GulfStar ketch dead in the water, broached to heavy swells. A very vocal individual identifying himself as the yacht’s owner and captain reached us on Marine Channel 16 right away, and started issuing instructions. He informed us that his sails were damaged, his engine flooded. He also mentioned that he was having trouble with his crew, which seemed additionally—given the nature of the background voice clutter obvious during his radio transmissions—to be his wife.

Since his sailboat was rolling heavily, causing its masts to sweep with great velocity through wild arcs, we suggested that he and his companion deploy in their dinghy, so that we could initiate a live load hoist rescue clear of threat by his rigging. He refused, ordering us to deliver a dewatering pump. We considered our own options at that point, and decided to try a hoist delivery of the pump and trail line, all well packaged in padded floatation. As we prepared for the hoist and approached to set up our hover, he got back on his radio and screamed another series of commands aimed at making sure we were being careful, finishing by asking if we had any idea how much his boat was worth. Resisting the urge to relate to him the cost to taxpayers of our Sikorsky HH-3F, plus the loss value of all our lives if we were not “careful,” we decided to scrub the whole effort, requesting diversion of a fortunately available 82-foot Coast Guard Cutter, able to tow him in.

I’m not contending that its always possible to make judgment decisions completely without error, but I am convinced that good helicopter operations, led by capable pilots prepared to act in competent command against an almost infinitely wide variety of possible mission demands and hazards, must incorporate a consistent ability to resist all manner of excessive mission pressures, particularly to include those where bullying can be identified as a component.

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