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CRM Tips for the Single Pilot

Posted 7 years 178 days ago ago by Randy Mains

CRM, Crew Resource Managment, Helicopter Safety, Helicopter Training   

Last year, HAI President Matt Zuccaro pushed his safety message, “Land the Damn Helicopter,” reminding us that as a last resort when we’ve run out of options, we have the power to break a potential link in an error chain by simply landing.   

    Research into why helicopters crash isn’t statistically different than other segments of aviation. It is pretty much agreed worldwide that 80 percent of all aviation accidents have an element of human error. Crew resource management (CRM) training can save the day before we need to resort to landing the damn helicopter. CRM, if practiced religiously, will keep your good hands from taking you somewhere your mind hasn’t been.

    CRM isn’t only for airline crews. CRM training makes you aware of what can hurt you—the human factors that can cause you to make a mistake or a bad decision. Because CRM has proven over the years to be a powerful tool to help pilots avoid, trap, and mitigate risk, it stands to reason CRM is a tool as useful for the single pilot as it is for multi-crew.

Situational Awareness

    Situational awareness (SA) is misperceiving what is going on around you and carrying that perception forward to what you expect to happen in the future. According to NASA research, SA is cited in 85 percent of aircraft accident and incident reports.

    Pilots learn early in their training that swift reactions are essential, but getting ahead of the aircraft is much better. Staying ahead of the aircraft is best. Situational awareness can help you stay ahead.

    Wouldn’t it be beneficial if pilots knew the common factors contributing to the loss of SA? NASA has done the work for us in their research of the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) database. The common factors leading to loss of situational awareness are:

     1. High workload
     2. Distractions
     3. Lack of communication
     4. Execution of an improper procedure
     5. Lack of experience
      6. Weather

     7. Fatigue

Cues which may indicate loss of situational awareness are:

     1. Ambiguity - information from two or more sources that don't agree
    2. Fixation - focusing on any one thing to the exclusion of everything else
     3. Confusion - uncertainty or bafflement about a situation
     4. Failure to fly the aircraft - being focused on non-flying activities
     5. Failure to look outside - everyone with heads down
     6. Failure to adhere to SOPs
    7. Failure to comply with limitations, minimums, etc.
     8. Failure to resolve discrepancies, contradictory data or personal conflicts

    9. Failure to communicate fully and effectively - vague or incomplete statements

    Research has concluded there is a minimum of four links to an error chain, with the average number being seven. If you are a single pilot who has had CRM training and you remain aware, stay vigilant, are always on the lookout for factors which can cause you to lose SA, and recognize early on any of the nine cues that you may be losing SA, you can immediately address them and thus break a link in an error chain forming.

    What helps enhance Situational Awareness?

  1. Your past experiences or what you have read
  2. Expectations - The more you are prepared, the greater the chance of handling the situation.
  3. Self-Briefing - This prepares and focuses your mind by preparing and reviewing what is expected in the future.
  4. Communication - Proper communication between team members and ATC plays a large part in effective situation awareness.
  5. Vigilance - Active monitoring of instruments, air traffic, deteriorating weather, and possible wires and obstructions

    We were taught early in our flight training the importance of maintaining an awareness of what is happening now, what is supposed to occur in the future, and where the helicopter is in three-dimensional space. If things are not going as planned, it’s time to immediately question why and begin to take measures to make things right.

    A single pilot, like multi-crew, should monitor and evaluate both the big picture as well as keep an eye on smaller details. It's important to remember that knowing and understanding the current state of affairs simply keeps you up with the aircraft; it doesn't put you ahead of the aircraft … and ahead is where you mentally want to be.

    NASA also discovered in its accident investigations something they term the Situational Awareness Paradox: less serious malfunctions appear more likely to cause loss of SA than do more serious malfunctions. As a single pilot you should keep in mind the SA paradox when you become focused on a minor detail or a small problem while flying that can easily wait until you can devote your full attention to it. Consider any small distraction a red flag that can potentially hurt you by taking your attention off the big picture.

     The anecdote for maintaining SA is easy—unwavering vigilance. Ensure you are continually maintaining an updated and accurate mental picture of what is happening around you. Question yourself. If you experience any of NASA’s seven common factors or the nine cues listed above, your situational awareness may not be what it seems.

    Hopefully you will never be in a position to “Land the Damn Helicopter,” as Matt Zuccaro suggests. By putting into practice CRM skills, you can help avoid threats to the safety of your flight, thus breaking a possible link in an error chain before threats becomes errors.

    CRM is a religion in the airlines because airline management and flight crews know it works. It is significant that the as of March 22, 2013, the FAA made it mandatory that all Part 135 helicopter operators must have yearly CRM training. Why? Because they know the power CRM has to reduce accidents.  

    “A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations requiring his superior skill.”  

That famous quote is the very definition of good CRM. When our industry fully buys into the concept that it’s the head, not the hands, that typically saves the day, I predict we will see a significant reduction of helicopter accidents.

Safe Flying!

About Randy: 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]