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My Two Cents Worth - Randy Mains

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a big fat red warning light on the instrument panel that would illuminate whenever we were putting our passengers and ourselves in harm’s way?  Well there is, but it’s not on the instrument panel – it’s in your head.

Research has shown that nearly 80% of all aircraft accidents in history have had an element of human error, which means it isn’t stick-and-rudder skills that are killing people – bad pilot decision-making is killing people.

I’m going to give you four tools to keep in the back of your mind whenever you are flying.  These tools will give you a fighting chance to beat those 80% odds.  Two of the four tools I mentioned in previous articles.  I am also including two more tools that I heard about since writing about the original two. 

The first two tools are in the form of hard-and-fast rules, like reaching your minimums on an instrument approach that, once reached, will give you the cue that it’s time to do something differently.  The other two mental tools are intuitive, that is, they come as a ‘gut feeling’ that all is not well and it’s time to call it quits.  You come to the point in a flight when you raise the white flag and say, “That’s it, the time’s come to put an end to what I’m doing before I become a statistic.”

If you make yourself aware that at least one of the four tools has been triggered, then the time has come to do something to stop a deadly link in an error chain from forming.  These four tools are excellent memory aids to add to your ‘enough-is-enough’ toolbox.  I guarantee that if you follow them, you will live to fly another day.

Before I give you the four tools, you must first embrace one important mindset – that it’s okay to call it quits.  You must be able to give yourself permission to say it’s okay to abort the mission, whatever that mission may be.  That mindset is a must. Without it, any of the four tools become worthless because you will be overriding their warnings.  It would be like not heeding a stall warning on a fixed-wing, or ignoring a warning that the landing gear is not down and extended by deciding to land anyway.  You must have the mental discipline to admit it’s time to go home or call it quits, realizing that by doing otherwise you risk becoming a statistic.

The first tool is the enroute decision point (EDP) used by the National EMS Pilots Association.  “Down by 30” is the mantra for that tool.  If you find that, due to meteorological conditions, you are decelerating 30 knots less than your cruising speed, or if you find you are flying below 500 feet of your minimum obstruction altitude during the night, or 300 feet during the day, it’s like hitting a minimum descent altitude (MDA) or a decision altitude (DA) on an instrument approach.  It’s time to either turn around, land, or if comfortable and able, climb and request IFR handling, but you do not continue!

The second tool is the ‘This is stupid’ tool I wrote about in last October’s issue.  If you find yourself thinking – or one of your passengers or crewmembers says out loud –  “This is stupid,” the same applies as if you hit an enroute decision point.  Time to raise the white flag, call it quits and go home.

The third tool is derived from something Lyn Burks, the editor-in-chief of this magazine told members attending the HeliSuccess career conference in Las Vegas last November.  It’s similar to the enroute decision point.  He told the audience that when he began flying HEMS, a senior pilot told him, “If in cruise flight you find yourself lowering the collective once while proceeding on a flight, consider that a yellow flag that all is not well, be careful and increase your vigilance.  Then if you lower the collective a second time, that’s it.  It’s time to abort the mission.”  That advice follows on from what you would do if you hit the enroute decision point touted by NEMSPA.

The fourth and final tool recently came from HAI president Matt Zuccaro.  Fed up with reading NTSB helicopter accident reports, he wrote an article featured in several aviation publications entitled “Land the Damn Helicopter.”  Here is what Zucarro wrote; it is well worth repeating:

“I once spoke to a pilot who had survived an accident and asked why he hadn’t used his option to make a precautionary landing. He indicated he had not given it direct consideration and had focused instead on destination and mission completion. He admitted, though, that in the past he had worried about the scrutiny he would incur for making a precautionary landing. This didn’t surprise me. In my early days of flying, I, too, pondered the same issues at times, although, luckily, I don’t any more.

“Pilots normally associate precautionary landings with the police showing up, their company incurring logistical and legal costs, upset passengers refusing to fly with them again, the FAA wanting an explanation, the press asking questions, and peers expressing opinions on their abilities.

“Yes, these are all possibilities, but think about the reality of the available options. Option one: focus on the situation and its safety concerns, make the precautionary landing, prevent the accident, and have confidence that once you explain your decision, all those you were concerned about will support your actions. Option two: don’t make the precautionary landing and instead kill everyone on the aircraft and maybe some on the ground. Call me crazy, but this seems like a no-brainer.”

Armed with these four mental tools: (1) The EDP, (2) “This is stupid,” (3) Collective down twice, and (4) “Land the Damn Helicopter” you can avoid becoming a statistic – and live to fly another day. 
 

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