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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Holding ‘Em and Folding ‘Em

By Terry Terrell

In the course of conducting safe and efficient operations with helicopters, probably even more critically than with fixed wing aircraft, there is a time and season for all things. There’s a time for VFR flying and a time for IFR operations, and there very definitely is a time for keeping the aircraft in the hangar. There’s a time for being aggressive, and a time for proceeding slowly, with great caution. As Kenny Rogers once said, you have to know when to hold ‘em, but you’ve also got to know when to fold ‘em.    

I remember the early days of developing the fundamentals of integrating civilian EMS helicopter services into community oriented networks. I instructed our dispatch authority to refrain from requesting helicopter assistance if the distress fell within a certain minimum radius from the hospital, reasoning that net time benefits to the patient would end up being a negative particularly if close proximity and short transport trip lengths gave ground ambulances anything even remotely approximating an overall time advantage. No sooner had this guideline been communicated than we were requested to respond to an automobile rollover not more than two miles from our hospital base. The medical crew and I reluctantly but dutifully launched, with me muttering nonstop criticisms about the way our operational systems were failing, expecting that this call would accomplish little more than illustrating exactly the air transport misuse I was trying to avoid. When we arrived overhead the distress, though, I was able to see that the ground emergency medical responders were way ahead of me. A Jeep had punched through vegetation on a thickly wooded hillside and had come to rest on its roof in a flat clearing a considerable horizontal and vertical distance from the roadway.

The cleared area beside the inverted Jeep was a perfect natural emergency helicopter landing site and the ground professionals recognized that. They also were able to see that having the firefighter medics hand-carry the patient up through the thick woods, to the nearest ground assistance vehicle, would have been nearly impossible, and certainly, if accomplishable at all, extremely time consumptive. I thought I knew exactly how to hold ‘em and fold ‘em when it came to responding to distress requests based on simple distance from launch, but I was wrong.

My goals as a young flying student, when a preoccupation with earning a private pilot license was exceeded in intensity only by a hunger to plunge into the next level of aviation complexity, fueled an early interest in gaining IFR competency. I somehow harbored the impression that visually identifying rivers and lakes as navigational checkpoints was amateurish, and that “real pilots” lived in a rarefied world far above the cloud deck, wondrously interpreting all they surveyed through the magic of radios and flight instruments. Later in my air education I came to appreciate the ease with which safe flight from A to B can be accomplished by following a repeatable set of cookbook IFR procedures.

Later still, though, with an accumulation of Navy fixed wing and Coast Guard helicopter experience under my by then expanding belt, I began to appreciate that a truly complete aviation toolbox can only allow useful flexibility as a function of offering a legitimately comprehensive array of tools, obtained across a wide spectrum of exposure. I once assisted with acquiring a twin engine turboprop for a friend, and I ended up traveling from Wichita, Kan. to Columbia, S.C., to pick up the new airplane. My instructor met me in Columbia to finish the last phase of checkout in the aircraft itself. At that point I was primarily interested in physically inspecting the new airplane, and the very nice but youngish instructor was focused mainly on flight planning. When we were ready to fly, the instructor noticed that we did not have IFR low altitude charts or approach plates on board, and was quite concerned about our lacking navigational references. Since the weather was perfectly clear, I told him we could simply proceed VFR, Part 91 style. He seemed uncomfortable with that idea, actually wondering aloud how we would find our destination. Having both VFR and IFR backgrounds, I was secretly amused by his exacting but narrowly focused background and relatively limited flexibility.

Capt. Sully Sullenberger, quickly shifting so impressively from his accustomed genteel IFR flight surroundings to the most stark and rudimentary of VFR flying environments, using a set of ancient personal aviation tools never expected to be needed again, provided a recent reminder that experience as it translates into being deeply prepared to hold ‘em, and not being forced to fold ‘em, cannot be overvalued.

We in the helicopter community should take the excellence of his example directly to heart.

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