Posted 3 years 125 days ago ago by Randy Mains
Helicopter shopping and false advertising were uncovered in a recent Survival Flight Bell 407 crash resulting in three fatalities in Vinton County, Ohio, on the morning of 29 January 2019 in snowy conditions. Pilot Jennifer L. Topper, 34, of Sunbury, Ohio, and flight nurses Bradley J. Haynes, 48, of London, Ohio, and Rachel L. Cunningham, 33, of Galloway, Ohio, lost their lives that morning.
After the crash, a Survival Flight printed flyer emerged on social media that advertised in part, “Our weather minimums are different, if other companies turn down the flight for weather, CALL US.”
I was not the only person shocked after reading that flyer. A flurry of concerned comments erupted from pilots and flight crew members on social media. True to their advertising, it was reported that two air ambulance companies turned down the request for that flight because of weather, which Survival Flight accepted.
“Helicopter shopping,” calling another flight program to see if they will accept a flight that another program turned down, is not generally accepted as good practice in the industry. Certainly, advertising that your company will accept a flight that others have turned down due to weather because your flight minimums are different, was in this case simply untrue. It was not only false advertising, but incredibly dangerous.
The day after the Ohio crash, a pilot with the company reached out to me in a message on social media saying, “To clear the record, that flyer was approved by management.” I asked that pilot if they have lower weather minimums than other Part 135 operators. He answered in the negative. When asked if the pilots felt pressure to fly, the pilot replied, “No.”
What I found telling about the promotional flyer was that it was signed by two base clinical managers, not pilots. It sounds suspiciously like two non-aviators making false claims to drum up business, unaware of the dangerous message they were sending.
This brings up a point: every team member in an organization, from top management on down, must fully understand the effect their action or inaction has on the safety of a flight, which is a mantra I teach in my CRM and AMRM classes, where a team member is defined as anyone who can have an influence on the safety of a flight. I doubt the people who created this flyer, which was signed off by management were aware of the danger and pressure they were putting on their flight crews.
Because pilots and crewmembers are the last line of defense in preventing an accident, in my January 2014 column I offered “Four Mental Tools to Keep You Alive” that bear repeating. The first tool is the En route Decision Point (EDP) used by the National EMS Pilots Association. “Down by 30,” is the mantra for that tool. If you find that, due to meteorological conditions, you are decelerating 30 knots less than your cruising speed or if you find you are flying below 500 feet of your minimum obstruction altitude during the night or 300 feet during the day, it’s like hitting a minimum descent altitude (MDA) or a decision altitude (DA) on an instrument approach. It’s time to either turn around, land or, if comfortable and able, climb and request IFR handling, but You Do Not Continue!
The second tool is the “This is Stupid” tool. If you find yourself thinking, or one of your passengers or crewmembers say out loud, ‘This is stupid’ the same applies as if you have hit an en route decision point. Time to call it quits and go home.
The third tool is derived from something Lyn Burks, the editor-in-chief of this magazine, told members attending a HeliSuccess conference in Las Vegas one year. His statement is very similar to the en route decision point endorsed by the National EMS Pilot’s Association. He told the audience that when he began flying HEMS he was told by a senior HEMS pilot that, “If in cruise flight you find yourself lowering the collective once while proceeding on a flight, consider that a yellow flag that all is not well, be careful and increase your vigilance. Then, if you lower the collective a second time, that’s it. It’s time to abort the mission.” Lyn’s advice follows on from what you would do if you hit the enroute decision point touted by NEMSPA.
The fourth and final tool came from HAI president Matt Zuccaro. Fed up with reading NTSB helicopter accident reports, he wrote an article featured in several aviation publications titled, “Land the Damn Helicopter.” Here is what Zuccaro said and it is well worth repeating:
“I once spoke to a pilot who had survived an accident and asked why he hadn’t used his option to make a precautionary landing. He indicated he had not given it direct consideration and had focused instead on destination and mission completion. He admitted, though, that in the past he had worried about the scrutiny he would incur for making a precautionary landing.
“Pilots normally associate precautionary landings with the police showing up, their company incurring logistical and legal costs, upset passengers refusing to fly with them again, the FAA wanting an explanation, the press asking questions, and peers expressing opinions on their abilities.
“Yes, these are all possibilities, but think about the available options. Option One: focus on the situation and its safety concerns, make the precautionary landing, prevent the accident, and have confidence that once you explain your decision, all those you were concerned about will support your actions. Option Two: don’t make the precautionary landing and kill everyone on the aircraft. Call me crazy, but this seems like a no-brainer.”
In the May/June 2018 issue of this magazine, I wrote a column titled “You are Safety’s Gatekeeper!” Always keep in mind whether you are the pilot, or flight crew, you have the power, the right, and the responsibility to say no to accepting a flight. Remember, takeoffs are optional; landings are mandatory, so don’t yield to pressure. If you’re not comfortable, say No! If you do launch, armed with the four mental tools discussed: (1) the EDP, (2) “This is stupid,” (3) Collective down twice, and (4) “Land the damn helicopter,” you and your crew can avoid becoming a statistic and live to fly another day.
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]