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My 2 Cents | Paying For the Sins of Others

Posted 214 days ago ago by Admin

Author Randy Rowles

As an industry, we fall victim to the questionable behavior of our brethren pilots and their sometimes-misguided follies. Not directly, but in the form of increased regulatory oversight, increased insurance premiums, and a sense by the public that helicopters are just unsafe! The evidence for such a belief is derived from the countless hours of helicopter crash videos found online. Not to mention the movies that often use a helicopter crash as the go-to ending for a high energy chase finale.

In real life, helicopter accidents often occur due to the pilot flying in an unsafe manner – period. Are there instances where this isn’t the case? Of course,  but the hard facts show that many helicopter accidents are avoidable with the causal factor being that of the human element. 

Safety Management Systems or SMS specifically address the intent of the pilot’s actions when reviewing a just-culture applicable event. The belief is simply that a reasonable person operating an aircraft would not intentionally act in a manner to cause harm to any person or equipment. However, we know that intentional unsafe actions exist and occur daily. It is the intentional actions of a few that destroy the reputation and potential future existence of the helicopter industry for us all.

At the time of writing this article, I was shown a video of an EC-120 hovering within an area of tall palm trees. During the video, the pilot attempts a pedal turn, and the tail section impacts a palm tree. In conversations, the issue of the tail strike is the item of discussion. But what of the decision to place the helicopter in a position under the trees in the first place. What would happen if a palm frond fell and impacted the main rotor during flight? As this flight was taking place on a city street, a national media event would have unfolded.   

At what point do we as an industry say enough is enough. Why do we agree to keep paying for the acts of the few that are knowingly adversely affecting our livelihood?  By agree, I mean not pointing out this behavior to regulators, insurance companies, and the public. We as an industry tend to be silent when such actions occur.  

A few months ago, a thread posted by a professional motorcycle rider included a video of a motorcycle doing aerial tricks with a helicopter and drone filming in very close proximity. At one point in the video, the helicopter must abruptly turn away from the motorcycle not to hit the rider with the main rotor blades as the pilot misjudged the future height of the motorcycle after a jump. That video disappeared after a self-proclaimed FAA Inspector made comments on the video thread.        

It’s not just amateur pilots that expose our industry to irrational oversight by the regulators and extreme insurance prices. Professional pilots that have narcissistic tendencies are also to blame. Videos of extreme maneuvering of helicopters under the protected umbrella of a movie manual are culprits as well. In many cases, the videos shown have little to do with the actual movie as no cameras are rolling except for the purpose of social media posts. How many helicopter incidents and accidents have occurred during social media filming versus actual on-set movie events? The answer – quite a few.

And we’re not just talking about aggressive flying. Unapproved landings in areas where common sense should tell a reasonable person that this is a bad idea occur almost daily. This is often under the banner that no law exists that a landing is not allowed, so I will land. Most certainly a law will soon exist in response to such behavior. It’s not that unapproved landings are always unsafe. Often the unanticipated noise impact by the community is an issue. As the public begins to research how to deal with helicopter noise, the vast array of helicopter crash videos easily found on an internet search alters their perspective from annoyed to anxious, then from startled to scared, and from acceptance of helicopters to disagreeing with their existence at all costs. 

The fact is, we as an industry only have ourselves to blame. We sell anyone with a pulse and high credit score a helicopter, train them to fly it, and expect them to be conservative pilots supporting the greater good of the helicopter industry. Well, that isn’t working. Additionally, some operators provide little-to-no oversight of their pilot staff and seem surprised when an event occurs causing damage, or worse: a loss of life by pilot actions that were predictable to all,  but apparently not to company management. 

Insurance payouts over the past few years reflect a lack of confidence the underwriters have in the helicopter industry. Policies with $10 million limits of liability have seen payouts up to $100 million. This is not sustainable. The negative human factor relationship to these events is driving regulatory and insurance industry support for non-human transportation solutions. If you are wondering why unmanned solutions, such as a drone and eVTOL aircraft, are accelerating in acceptance, it’s the reduction of the negative human factor that equates from 75% to 85% of our accident data.

Simply stated, our own behavior will be the demise of the helicopter industry. Whether we make too much noise, cost too much money, or perceivably crash on cue, the public is looking for alternatives to our existence. Don’t give them a reason to expedite the process.  

About the Author: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.

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