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Why I do what I do?

Posted 6 years 60 days ago ago by Randy Mains

That’s a question Rick Weatherford, copy editor and staff writer for Rotorcraft Pro, asked me recently.  Rick casts a discerning editorial eye over everything I write for the magazine, so I suppose he became curious about what motivates me.  

When I asked him exactly what he meant he made his query more specific:

“Randy, what fuels your burning passion for promoting rotorcraft safety?  Is it statistics, or your personal experiences?  Do you believe helicopter safety is generally being addressed in the wrong way and you think you have a solution that’s been overlooked?  Or is it some combination of all these issues as well as others that I didn't allude to?”  

I vividly remember the exact date and time I decided I needed to return to the USA to deliver a life-saving message.  The date was August 31, 2010; the time: 10:00 PM.  That’s when I learned of yet another air medical crash; a Bell Jet Ranger in Arkansas went into the clouds and came out the bottom in pieces killing the pilot and the two-person medical crew who had entrusted their lives to him.

I was in my accommodation at Abu Dhabi Aviation when I heard the news.  For some reason hearing about that crash caused me to ‘snap’ and at that moment I became an activist for change.  I went for a long walk to think.  During that walk the same thoughts kept racing through my mind: When will they finally ‘get it’ back home? When will the carnage end?  What will it take to bring about change?

Since I flew my first helicopter air ambulance (HAA) mission at Hermann Hospital in Houston in January 1979, and as the first recipient of the Golden Hour Award for my contribution to further the HAA concept in America, I’ve always felt I had skin in the game. As a consequence I wrote my first book in 1985 entitled The Golden Hour to act as a bellwether warning that more people would die if the same attitudes and procedures continued.  Sadly, that book proved prophetic, like gazing into a crystal ball of things to come. Since writing that book I watched an average of 13 people lose their lives annually in what seemed to be the same accident occurring over and over again: IIMC, loss of spatial orientation, and loss of control leading to loss of life.  From my vantage point overseas it appeared to be the very definition of insanity.

While working abroad I would tell the airline transport pilots I flew with how we conducted HAA operations in the States and those pilots who hailed from over 20 nations would look at me like I had totally lost my mind.  

I’ll answer Rick’s questions one at a time: 

Is it statistics that fuels your burning passion for promoting flight safety? 

The stats certainly do back up the need to address the safety issues in our industry.  For example, in HAA, Dr. Ira Blumen, medical director at the University of Chicago UCAN life flight program, ran a safety improvement study with an assortment of 40-plus HAA professionals on his team.  After examining HAA crashes over a 10-year period, their study came to the grim conclusion that 94 percent of the crashes had an element of human error. Similarly, in a 10-year study by the U.S. Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team, it was determined that 84 percent of the crashes in general helicopter aviation had an element of human error.

Is it your personal experiences that caused you to become such a safety advocate?  

Absolutely! In 1984, when I left HAA flying in San Diego, I was hired to set up a nationwide HAA program in the Sultanate of Oman. I witnessed a much safer way to fly.  My new colleagues were former British military pilots accustomed to solid two-crew operations using effective crew resource management.  Nearly all of them had flown hard IFR on the North Sea as well. It was similar to airline standards.

“Do you believe helicopter safety is generally being addressed in the wrong way? 

In my view, helicopter safety in the States is certainly viewed differently than in Europe, the UK, Canada, and Australia mainly because the FAA and the NTSB have, in my opinion, a dysfunctional relationship. The NTSB makes recommendations and the FAA chooses which recommendations to adopt and which to ignore.  That’s because the FAA has a dual mandate to both promote and regulate air commerce and must consider how any new rule would affect an operator’s bottom line.  

Here’s an example: After 2008 became the most deadly year on record in HAA, the NTSB examined HAA accidents from 2000 to 2008 determining in their report that:

“One hundred twenty three accidents occurred, killing 104 people and seriously injuring 42. Pilot actions or omissions, in some capacity, were attributed as the probable cause in 60 of the 123 accidents. Most of these 60 accidents might have been prevented had a second pilot and/or an autopilot been present.”  
The NTSB presented their findings to the FAA in 2009.  When the FAA’s new rules finally came out four years later, there was no mention of a second pilot or an autopilot.  It was deemed too expensive.

Do you think you have a solution that’s been overlooked?  

Yes. Having flown overseas operating under the Joint Aviation Regulations (JAR) or what has become the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA): my solution to enhance flight safety in the States would be to adopt the EASA or Australian models which, I believe, are much more concerned with safety and less bottom-line oriented.

In 2013, I was in Australia giving two safety talks at their air medical conference in Melbourne.  It was announced that their HAA was considering adopting Part 121 airline standards because “The patient has no choice as to what level of safety they are willing to accept so we must deliver the highest level of safety as is humanly possible.”  

Now, that is a philosophy I wish our regulators would adopt here in America.

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]