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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Best SMS: Between Your Ears

By Lee Benson

Since my last column, I have had the privilege of attending three very unique conferences. The first was the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual showcase in Fort Worth, Texas. Seeing and listening to the professional flight and support crews that make up Army Aviation today made me come home and polish my Army Flight Wings. God bless every one of you and your families.

The next conference was Heli-Russia held in Moscow. This is the second year that I have attended. Moscow is an interesting city—the food is great, in fact better than several countries in Europe that I can think of. The women are gorgeous, not one of them looks like she fell into a fishing tackle box or was used as a board to empty spray guns onto. The traffic is terrible, worse than Los Angeles. A little clue about Russia: You must have a visa to enter the country. You can only obtain a visa for the exact days that you will be there. Do not land in Russia on the 18th of May, when your visa starts on the 19th. Oh my, 13 hours in a holding room, waiting for midnight so that it is officially the 19th, I had finished my book on the airplane, it was a hard plastic chair, not a lot of fun.

The Russian show is interesting; it’s probably a third the size of Heli-Expo. The focus of the show is utility helicopters. Big helicopters, doing robust work, with the technology needed to get the job done. Not what we see here today, where if it doesn’t have an acronym with at least five letters then obviously it’s way too old school. I think the Kamov 32 and I could be great friends. In fact, the aircraft that excited me the most in the last couple of years was the Bell 417. I started flying Jet Rangers in A models—anything that says Bell Jet Ranger and 900-horsepower in the same sentence has to be good.

The last conference I attended was Rotor & Wing’s Safety and Training Summit held in Denver. I presented some thoughts about the procurement of aircraft. I know that’s got nothing to do with training or safety, but after several sessions on primary helicopter training and safety management systems, it’s not hard to be well-received when you change the subject. I was a safety officer twice in my career, once for the old Condor Helicopters in Oxnard Calif., and also for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I tried to do a good job, went to the right courses and moved paper towards the end goal of better safety. But I would rather wash helicopters, correction; I would rather wash fuel trucks than do safety work. The greatest safety management system is between your right and left ear.

The second greatest safety system is the expectations of the old man, you know the boss, chief, director, and the titles go on. The man in your organization that pays the bills, sets the safety culture. Whoever that is, he’s it. Even if he delegates the management and/or responsibility to your chief pilot or director of operations, in the end, his attitude towards safety sets your safety culture.

Now to the main point of this month’s article, a little free advice to my new peers just starting out on the tremendous adventure of being a professional helicopter pilot. Look above, young person. Notice I said that the greatest safety management tool is between your left and right ear. The statement is true, but the safety culture that your employer has developed over the years is nearly as important. When you interview for jobs it’s your responsibility to understand the operator’s culture. Do you really think that if you go to work at an operator that through its accident record has shown a disregard for safety, that you will change that culture? As a young pilot, can you mentor yourself into the right practices and attitudes to become the pilot that I, and our industry, need you to be? The answer is no. You need good people around you in your career to be safe and learn your trade.

Yes, I know this from personal experience. After leaving the Army with lots of experience and a logbook full of hours, I went to work flying recips in Alaska. The check out was not what it should have been. A month later I had a mechanical problem that a well-trained recip pilot would have seen coming. I didn’t see it, the engine quit, I got lucky on the autorotation and nobody got hurt. The accident review board declared it mechanical failure, I know better. I never went to work for another operator that I didn’t respect. I didn’t say like, I said respect. They may have paid me poorly, or worked me like a Tennessee mule, but they ran a safe operation. Fly safe.

For a video clip of Benson and others from the Summit, visit the Rotor & Wing Safety and Training Channel.

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