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You are Safety’s Gatekeeper!

Posted 6 years 3 days ago ago by Randy Mains

It’s tragic when several pilots point out safety concerns to management, nothing is done to remedy the problem, and people lose their lives because the problem was not addressed.  

A possible example occurred on 11 March 2018 when a Liberty Helicopters’ FlyNYON aircraft crashed in New York’s East River causing five people to lose their lives by drowning. Details in a New York Times article on the tragedy stated: “Pilots for the company that operated the flight warned their bosses about dangerous conditions, including equipment that could make escape difficult.”

According to the FAA’s preliminary report of that crash:

“The front-seat passenger turned sideways, slid across the double bench seat toward the pilot, leaned back, and extended his feet to take a photograph of his feet outside the helicopter. As the pilot initiated a right pedal turn to begin to head south, the nose of the helicopter began to turn right faster than he expected, and he heard a low rotor rpm alert in his headset. When he reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, he realized that it was in the off position. He also noted that a portion of the front seat passenger's tether was underneath the lever.”

The passenger’s unintended action was a fluke to be sure, but the reason five people died goes much deeper than bad luck.

According to a report in The New York Times, the company pilots repeatedly requested more suitable safety gear. One pilot wrote an email to company management with these words: “We are setting ourselves up for failure by using sometimes poorly fitting harnesses.” According to company emails, internal documents, and interviews, that pilot made a series of recommendations — one recommendation was four days before the fatal accident — for new tools that would allow passengers to more easily free themselves in case of an emergency. Internal documents reviewed by The New York Times indicated that executives for FlyNYON, bristled at the pilot’s concerns; they insisted that the operation, which offered the chance to snap selfies while leaning out over the city, was safe.

The chief executive of FlyNYON, Patrick K. Day, wrote in a January email exchange with pilots who had raised concerns: “Let me be clear, this isn’t a safety issue with the harnesses.” 

Forensic evidence would refute Day’s observation.  Documents and interviews researched by the Times show that FlyNYON had been using mostly off-the-shelf construction harnesses and tethers that could not be easily severed by the small cutters provided. These harnesses were attached to the helicopter by tethers and secured via locking carabiners to metal rings between passenger’s shoulder blades. To unlock the carabiners, passengers had to locate the metal sleeve-like screw-lock behind their back and twist it until it was unlocked.  

Multiple pilots who worked with FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters sought whistle-blower protection by retaining a Washington lawyer, Debra Katz, who specializes in whistle-blower matters. Katz asked the New York attorney general’s office to investigate FlyNYON, and sent a letter to the FAA claiming that the pilots were subject to retaliation. She wrote: “There is a pervasive feeling among Liberty pilots that if they provide truthful information to the FAA and the NTSB and speak out about the lax safety culture and practices at FlyNYON, they will face blackballing in the industry and other forms of career-derailing retaliation.”

In his statement to the Times, Day pointed out that the FAA had performed a site inspection of FlyNYON’s facility on 31 October, at which time inspectors observed the harness and tethering process and continued to permit their use on Liberty and FlyNYON operated flights without issue.

The FAA confirmed it had conducted “routine oversight” of Liberty’s operations on October 31 and “observed supplemental harnesses outside a helicopter.” But a spokesman for the agency said that its inspectors would not have rendered judgment on the harnesses because supplemental restraints are not subject to inspection. 

In his statement to the Times, Day pointed out that under FAA rules pilots have responsibility for the safety of their flights saying, “If these handful of Liberty pilots had issues that they deemed detrimental to the safety of the operation, they should have ceased operations and addressed the issue with Liberty management.”

Day is correct. Pilots know Rule 91.3 by heart under the heading  Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command”: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” In short, we are the gatekeepers of safety to ensure our passengers are not harmed. If you see something wrong, you have a legal and moral responsibility to act—even if it means jeopardizing your job.  

I speak from experience. For more than five months in 1982 I told the hospital and Evergreen Helicopters the other pilot and I were violating our duty times by working 48-hour shifts, the industry norm at the time. Our requests fell on deaf ears, that is, until a panel came off our helicopter in flight prompting an FAA audit of our Life Flight program. The other pilot and I were charged with violating our duty times; our licenses hung in the balance.  

A senior executive from Evergreen flew down to tell me,  “Unfortunately, Randy, as pilot in command when the s--t hits the fan the PIC is the only one standing in front of it.” It was all I could do to keep from crawling over the desk to strangle him.

You and only you are responsible for the safety of your aircraft regardless of your employer’s unsafe practices or an ineffectual FAA who cannot spot potential for catastrophe during a routine base inspection. If you see a problem you must act. As PIC it’s your legal and moral responsibility. Sometimes the chips are stacked against you but you have the power to say no.  It’s difficult, but as a professional it’s a duty you owe to your loved ones and those who place their lives in your hands.        

About the Author: 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].