Posted 49 days ago ago by Admin
Last March, I informed Lyn Burks, owner and editor-in-chief of this magazine, that this November/December issue would be my last column for Rotor Pro. Before I fade off into the journalistic sunset, I’d like to share with you how I came to write my column, my motivation to do so and discuss how, in my view, the industry has changed since I joined this magazine.
The wonderful opportunity to become a columnist for Rotor Pro happened more by unexpected opportunity than by design. In 1982, when I was working full time as chief pilot for UCSD Medical Center’s Life Flight program piloting a Bell 222 single pilot IFR in San Diego, I also attended San Diego State University full time and graduated with a degree in journalism. I could have never imagined I would one day have my own column. My first published article for Rotor and Wing magazine back in 1983 was entitled “Life and Death—an EMS Pilot’s Viewpoint.” In that same year, I was awarded the first Golden Hour Award presented by Helicopter Association International (HAI). The now annual award recognizes a person’s efforts to further the helicopter air ambulance concept in America.
In 1984, I was head-hunted from San Diego to set up a country-wide helicopter air ambulance (HAA) program for the Royal Oman Police. While living and working in Oman, in 1985 I began writing my first book, entitled The Golden Hour, to address the carnage I had witnessed in my six years as a helicopter air ambulance pilot in the States. I wrote that fact-based novel for one reason and one reason only: to be a wake-up call for the industry back home. Its alarming message was if the same attitudes and procedures by management and flight crews were allowed to continue, more people would die. Sadly, over the 26 years that I worked and flew in the Middle East (including Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi) I watched from afar the HAA industry I loved and helped to create become one of the deadliest jobs in America. After every HAA crash I would ask myself: When will the death toll become so unacceptable that changes must absolutely be made?
My life would change radically on 31 August 2010 at precisely 10:00 p.m. That’s when I became determined to become a voice for change in the HAA industry back home. On that date, I was working as a flight examiner and Bell 412 simulator instructor in Dubai for Abu Dhabi Aviation training and examining over 20 nationalities of helicopter airline transport pilots (ATPs) when I learned of yet another EMS crash, this one in Arkansas, that killed three people. Enraged, I launched myself out of my accommodation to walk and to think, asking myself over and over again: What can I personally do to try to prevent these accidents from occurring back home? I felt I had the answer to what, in my mind, were totally preventable accidents. During that walk, I told myself I needed to get on the stage at one of the yearly air medical transport conferences to share what I’d seen while flying abroad: that there indeed was a solution to prevent the awful loss of life if the industry was willing to make a huge mental and financial commitment.
When I worked with the Royal Oman Police, I witnessed a new paradigm, a much safer way to operate. The 12 pilots I flew with were all British former military pilots who had flown hard IFR on the North Sea. They taught me how to operate in a well-oiled team with two pilots using good crew resource management. It didn’t take long for me to conclude that if that same level of professionalism and procedures were adopted back home by air crews and HAA management, the accident rate would plummet. In Oman we had no pressure to fly. We pilots were treated like professional airline pilots; our judgment was never questioned. No expense was spared for safety either.
We were supplied with the latest aircraft and avionics: two pilots with radar, autopilot, radar-altimeter, etc. As we were all ATPs, which was a requirement for the job, we had to demonstrate 100% proficiency in instrument flying.
I’d been out of the States and HAA for more than 25 years so I had no idea of the current politics and I knew no one in the industry. Nevertheless, I quit my job at Abu Dhabi Aviation to go back home to spread my safety message.
Thirteen months after going on that walk in Abu Dhabi, I stood on the stage in front of 700 air medical professionals at the Air Medical Transport Conference (AMTC 2011) in St. Louis. I was about to deliver the speech of my life because so much rested on my success. In preparation to dramatically drive home my point to the audience, I had cut out and placed each individual name in separate white envelopes of the 358 people who had lost their lives in an HAA accidents since I wrote The Golden Hour. As the attendees filed into the cavernous conference hall, members of the National EMS Pilot’s Association and my wife handed out those envelopes to the people filing in. At the end of my 50-minute keynote speech I asked those with envelopes to please stand up. Once half the audience got to their feet, I told everyone to look around the room at the those standing because that was how many people we lost since I wrote my book. Point delivered.
Another significant incident happened that year that ultimately brought me to you. I met Lyn Burks at HAI-Heli Expo where, after talking with him, he asked me if I’d write an article for his magazine. After seeing that I could string a coherent string of sentences together, he offered me my own column. He said I could write anything I wanted to write about the industry. Over the years, he’s been true to his word.
The following year, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Air Medical Transport Conference in Seattle. Oregon Aero liked my safety message and offered to fly me and my wife anywhere I was invited to give a safety talk or teach a CRM or AMRM class. I worked 7-day weeks giving classes and talks around the country in an effort to make people safe. I wrote two more books, Journey to the Golden Hour and The Reluctant Activist as my way to take the reader on the journey with me.
During my research, I was shocked to learn I was working against a stacked deck. I read an article in an aviation law publication entitled, “Ever Wonder Why the FAA Doesn’t Always Listen to the NTSB Recommendations?” I was very surprised to learn that the FAA isn’t mandated to follow suggestions by the NTSB mainly because the FAA operates under a sometimes conflicted mandate of promoting air commerce while ensuring that any new safety regulations do not adversely affect an operator’s bottom line. Put another way, whenever a good idea comes along like mandating that all HAA aircraft have autopilots, the feds run the idea by the various operators and if the operators complain, the FAA doesn’t mandate it.
Here’s a good example: 2008 became the deadliest year on record for helicopter EMS when 28 people died in seven separate accidents. The loss of life finally caused an outcry that forced the NTSB in February 2009 to form a 4-day taskforce bringing in over 40 experts to determine what could be done to prevent further accidents. Generating 1,000 pages of testimony, Randy Babbitt, the then-head of the FAA, and Deborah Hershman, the then-head of the NTSB, submitted a final report in September 2009 with recommendations to the FAA to prevent further loss of life. Babbitt wrote:
“In the absence of a second pilot, use of an autopilot might enhance a pilot’s ability to cope with high workload, such as in inadvertent flight into IMC (IIMC) something that occurs all too frequently in HEMS and is the leading cause of death.”
He strengthened his argument by stating statistics:
“A review of the NTSB Aviation Accident Database revealed that during the eight-year period from 2000 to 2008, 123 HEMS accidents occurred, killing 104 people and seriously injuring 42 more saying pilot actions or omissions, in some capacity, were attributed as the probable cause in 60 of the 123 accidents and that most of these 60 accidents might have been prevented had a second pilot and/or an autopilot been present.”
When I read Babbit’s and Hershman’s summary, I thought surely the FAA would mandate autopilots in every HAA aircraft. I was wrong. When the FAA proposed it to the operators many of the smaller companies complained it could put them out of business, so the proposal never made it into the 13 new rules the FAA presented on 22 March 2013. I saw it as a huge opportunity lost due to our faulty system.
In my personal quest to promote flight safety across the country, I found I was meeting myself coming and going to the airport traveling on nearly 80-airliners each year, so I decided I needed to create a cadre of CRM instructors. I am an EASA-trained CRM instructor. In the U.K. and Europe, you must have a certification to teach CRM so I built a helicopter-specific 300-page, 14 module CRM Instructor’s course that includes a flash drive with all video clips, slides, and pictures.
So how far have we come in reducing HAA accidents? I have been told that my personal efforts are actually making a difference but, of course, no bell rings when that happens so one has to rely on the data. I recently spoke with Dr. Ira Blumen, medical director at the University of Chicago, the recognized expert on HAA statistics. He sent me his latest chart detailing HAA accidents going back to 1972. Decide for yourself…
I am happy to report, many of the operators are installing autopilots and synthetic vision technology into their aircraft; this is an invaluable help to pilots to maintain situational awareness. The use of flight simulators and VR trainers are becoming more widely used as well, which is great to hear.
My decision to leave this magazine occurred because I feel I have said all I can say on the subject of flight safety. I feel like a parent whose kids are striking off on their own and my main job’s done. After writing nearly a third of a million words, I feel that if one of my ‘kids’ has an accident or incident, it’s shame on them, not on me.
A good example of what I am talking about is the Kobe Bryant crash. I documented in my Mar/Apr 2020 column 17 articles I wrote prior to that crash. Had Kobe’s Bryant’s highly experienced pilot read and heeded their advice, he would have turned around and everyone flying with him would be alive today. I hope you have read and learned from my safety articles over the years. When a situation arises for you to make a decision, please remember my words and act on them to bring you and your passengers back home safely.
My new passion is to influence the upcoming generation (age 8 to 12) in a series of illustrated children’s books. I’ve signed a book contract for my first story where I’ve created an unlikely hero: a young beagle helicopter pilot, Barnaby, who demonstrates admirable traits of loyalty, honesty, truthfulness, hard work, integrity, persistence, and empathy.
Wish me luck on my new endeavor as I wish you every success in yours.
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