Posted 5 years 174 days ago ago by Randy Mains
Have you ever accidentally done a loop in a helicopter on a moonless night at 1,000 feet on downwind leg to an airport because the pilot flying lost spatial orientation? I have. The sudden and abrupt transition from controlled flight to uncontrolled flight, when the pilot “lost it,” then fighting for control, took me as much by surprise as it did the poor pilot.
He was an airline transport pilot with more than 5,000 hours in the aircraft. He wasn’t new to instrument flying, having logged hundreds of hours of actual instrument time using NVGs in a Blackhawk working for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Colombia.
Luckily, this “flight” took place in a $14 million, Level D, full-motion Bell 412 flight simulator in Dubai that I was operating as a flight simulator instructor, flight examiner, and CRM assessor for Abu Dhabi Aviation. To test my pilot’s hand-flying skills, I had given him an autopilot failure on downwind, which caused him to have to fly the machine into dark nothingness.
Because I have seen several experienced pilots “lose it” in the sim, it’s caused me to come to the realization of how important it is to have a plan of action before one does go into inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC). This brings me to the topic of line-oriented flight training, or LOFT.
You may know it as scenario-based training, something the NTSB has recommended HEMS crews practice. It is a tool I used with the pilots at Abu Dhabi Aviation, a concept first researched by NASA in the mid-1970s and adopted by the airlines.
NASA’s interest in LOFT stemmed largely from a major human factors in aviation safety program study conducted in 1975. The study utilized an airline training simulator and highly structured trip scenarios as a means of examining human error in flight operations. The team conducting the study wanted to measure the frequency and types of errors in simulated line operations, and they wanted to determine the circumstances under which these errors occurred.
LOFT training is often used in conjunction with a crew resource management (CRM) training program (my bailiwick). The real value of LOFT is that it allows flight crews to train under realistic environments, while exposing them to atypical scenarios that require good decision making, intercommunication, and leadership capabilities. Flight crews are not briefed beforehand about the abnormal situations they will be given. Instead, the scenarios naturally unfolded as they would in a real flight, which gives an accurate understanding of how well the crew reacts to the anomalies.
LOFT scenarios may be developed from many sources, but accident reports provide a more realistic starting point. A properly conducted LOFT program can provide great insight into the internal workings of a unit’s operation and training program. If similar mistakes seem to be recurring among the unit’s pilots, it may indicate a potentially serious problem resulting from incorrect procedures, conflicting or incorrect standard operating procedures, or other operational aspects that may need addressing. A LOFT session may reveal areas in training programs that are weak or need special emphasis.
The spirit of LOFT is such that sessions should not be used as a method of checking the performance of individuals. Instead, LOFT is a validation of training programs and operational procedures. An individual or crew member needing additional training after a LOFT session should be given that training immediately—with no stigma or recrimination.
Abu Dhabi Aviation landed a large HEMS program in Saudi Arabia using 10 aircraft. Knowing how dark it could be to land on a road without the aid of NVGs, one of the LOFT scenarios I devised in the sim was to have the crew fly to the scene of a road accident on a moonless night. I would give them the accident coordinates. They would then navigate to it, fly a high reconnaissance, low reconnaissance, steep approach, and land to a road. When they landed, I set up the system for rotor wash to kick up dust. This didn’t put them fully IMC, but it made for a more realistic scenario, as many Saudi landing sites are extremely dusty.
This next part of the LOFT scenario was, in my mind, one of the most telling and important segments of the two-hour session. I would ask the pilot to: takeoff like he would from an actual scene, climb straight up to 100 feet, then initially fly 5 degrees nose-down directly over the road to accelerate to Vy (best rate of climb speed), then climb to 1,000 feet and return to the airfield. With landing light on, at 400 feet I would suddenly put him inadvertently into a solid overcast, with the landing light reflecting back from the cloud. It was very realistic.
I was looking for the pilot to level the wings, keep the aircraft under control, then give a call to air traffic for radar handling and approach vectors, preferably an ILS. I did not want the pilot to suddenly descend for visual meteorological conditions (VMC) or try to do a 180-degree turn, which can be fatal at low altitude.
Many flight operators do not have the luxury of an autopilot, or even a second pilot like we had at Abu Dhabi Aviation. Nor do they have the budget to afford to train in a flight simulator. What you most assuredly must have in your personal arsenal to keep you alive is a plan if you inadvertently go IMC.
The first line of defense of course is to stay situationally aware of the weather so you won’t get caught out. Your second line of defense is to have a mental plan of action.
I suggest you practice LOFT training, either in the sim or in the aircraft, because it’ll cause you to be better prepared if you experience IIMC. Hopefully, you won’t do an accidental loop like we did, which can be quite terrifying … even in the simulator.
Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].