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Military to Civilian - You Aren't Saving Lives Anymore

Posted 1 years 49 days ago ago by Admin

We’ve all been there:  an urgent mission to rescue wounded or dying personnel, or have undergone surge operations in a lengthy campaign against high value that taxes personnel and machines. These scenarios place military aircrews and maintenance personnel in potentially hazardous positions of increased risk and challenging conditions. In these cases, the risk is often assumed by our superiors; sometimes they waive the rules altogether. Teams vow to never leave a fallen comrade and fly until the job is finished, or they operate in hazardous conditions because lives are at stake. Maintainers work extended hours with little rest to keep the machines flying. The actual or perceived pressures to complete these missions are very real. In combat, it may be OK to risk an aircraft and crew to save one life. Organizations have mottos such as “So others may live” or use terms such as “no-fail mission.”

Fortunately, the commercial aviation world is different. If you are a military professional looking for employment with a commercial operator, you will not be saving lives anymore! This is particularly true in the air ambulance business. People will die in the back of the aircraft or at the scene when you are unable to help, and everyone must accept that. Yes, the primary purpose of air ambulance operators is to provide critical care transport to the sick and injured, but that is no longer the job of the pilot or mechanic. So what is the job?

I ask this question of candidates in interviews: “What do you think the job of an air ambulance pilot is?” What is the correct answer? Our jobs are to operate the aircraft safely and legally, in accordance with regulations, flight manuals, and other rules from one location to another.  It’s as simple as that. The mechanic’s job is to maintain the aircraft in an airworthy condition in accordance with regulations, policies, and procedures as established by the appropriate authorities. If we can’t do that, we don’t fly. Even if that means someone might die. We don’t get waivers to go fly a risky mission for a critical patient. The CEO can’t say “I assume the risk; therefore, you can deviate from the flight manual to go save that life”. It just doesn’t work that way.

In commercial aviation, someone else’s emergency does not constitute an emergency on our part. We cannot be influenced by how bad the call might be or how injured the patient is. As pilots and mechanics, those factors have nothing to do with how we do our jobs and should not affect our decision whether to accept or decline a flight request. In fact, most companies do everything in their power to prevent patient conditions from being discussed with the pilot so as to not affect aviation decisions.  

Did you know the FAA has actually encouraged the word “mission” to be removed from all material related to air ambulance operations? Air ambulance operators are not involved in a mission, they are involved in “commercial air transportation”. Additionally, they officially changed the name from “Helicopter Emergency Medical Services” to “Helicopter Air Ambulance” because the use of “emergency” in normal operations has negative connotations, and because, though a life and death emergency may exist, air ambulance flights are not operated as an emergency.

So, if you want to transition into the world of air ambulance operations to “save lives”–—think again. Yes, lives are often saved because of the air ambulance.  However, that is not the job of air ambulance pilots or mechanics. Violating a federal regulation, operating below weather minimums, exceeding an aircraft limitation, or skipping a step in a maintenance process to get the aircraft airborne sooner to “save a life” are never acceptable.

This thought process often requires a paradigm shift for transitioning service members. It’s a concept that must be embraced. You are not saving lives anymore. You are involved in commercial air transportation. The reasons for this are many, but arguably the most important reason is to ensure the safe return of you, your crew, and your aircraft every time you go fly. Believe me, you want to live to fly another day.

Eugene Reynolds has been a pilot for over 20 years, and is a military and special operations aviation veteran. He now serves as an assistant chief pilot, SPIFR captain, and instructor for a premier commercial air ambulance operator in the Pacific Northwest.




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