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But We’ve Always Done it This Way

Posted 8 years 298 days ago ago by Randy Mains

Has anyone ever said to you, “But we’ve always done it this way”? It’s a complacency trap that once held the potential for dire consequences for five of us employed as HEMS pilots for the king of Saudi Arabia.  

    I was new to the organization, standing on the bridge of the king’s yacht with the chief pilot. We were both looking half a mile away through binoculars as he explained the approach to the hospital helipad. “You’ll fly to the waypoint listed “WALL” in the GPS, which is the wall at the edge of the palace grounds. Once you reach it, you’ll make a left 90-degree dogleg turn, keeping those five construction cranes on your right while staying well clear of that big unlit stadium on your left.  See it?”


    “You’ll want to stay between the construction cranes and the stadium until you see those rockets on sticks. See them?” He was referring to several rockets held up on long poles in the center of a roundabout on the other side of another wall.  

    “Yep, see them.”  

    “The helipad sits just this side of them. To depart you’ll take off toward those rockets on sticks making a hard-left turn aiming toward the coast while keeping a close eye on the towers and construction cranes on either side of your departure path.”

     Looking over at him, I lowered my binoculars. “Why don’t we just get permission to do a practice run?   

    He shook his head, “Can’t do it. I’ve been told if we ask to practice landing there, they’ll think we’re plotting a coup.”

    “Are you serious?”


    “No, really. Have you tried asking?”

    “Nope, that’s just how it is because we’ve always done it this way.”   

    Because I was new I didn’t want to upset the status quo. My only reply was, “God help us if we’re called to go in there at night in bad weather, having never been in there before.” I was determined not to let this be the last heard from me on the subject.

    A month later, the chief pilot went to the U.K. to check up on our second 214ST that had gone through extensive maintenance. That’s when I asked the No. 2 in charge, Don Williams, if he’d be willing to call the general at J-Base to ask permission to land at the helipad. Don immediately called the general.  

    “Of course you can,” the general said enthusiastically. “Why haven’t you called sooner?”

    So much for plotting a coup.

Don and I took off at dusk from the palace to the helipad at J-Base, grateful for the opportunity to check the best approach routing into and out of the hospital. However, the most important piece of information came when the general let us in on a shocking piece of important information: “You do know that J-Base is the backup hospital for the king if you can’t land at the primary hospital.”

    We were stunned. For years the pilots thought the king would be flown to J-Base. We asked the general, “Where do we take the king then?”

    “King Fahd Hospital, of course.”

    “Of course.”

    The following day Don called the hospital administrator at King Fahd Hospital who asked, “Why haven’t you requested to land here before?” Don had no answer for him.  What was he going to say: “I thought you’d think we were plotting a coup”?

    The day we landed the king’s shiny Bell 214ST helicopter at the hospital. It was a lively, almost carnival-like affair, full of excitement. I imagine everyone who was able to leave their posts in the hospital came out to watch this special event: paramedics, nurses, doctors, ambulance crews, etc. When we exited the helicopter, the hospital administrator rushed over welcoming us with a huge smile, open arms, a hearty handshake, and even gave us both a big hug. Everyone was patting each other on the back, handing out business cards, and inspecting the helicopter’s interior. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been clowns, cotton candy, and helium balloons.

    We practiced landing there at night too. So now all the pilots: Don Williams, Johnny Grantham, Stuart Gatherer, and myself (everyone except the chief pilot who was still in England) was current landing day and night at J-Base and King Fahd Hospital. We could now say with hand on heart that we were truly prepared to supply the royals with the EMS coverage they were expecting.

    When the chief pilot returned to Jeddah from the U.K., he became seriously miffed when he learned that we had gone behind his back to talk to the general. That is, before he learned what the general had told us: J-Base wasn’t the primary hospital. He was as shocked as we were to learn the news. He then made arrangements to do day and night landings at the two hospitals so that he could be current and proficient too.

    I returned to the States after the summer cruising season in Jeddah had finished. Two weeks later, I received an email from the chief pilot thanking me for pushing for permission to practice landings and takeoffs from J-Base and King Fahd Hospital. He told me that the company had arranged an independent outside audit to determine if he was doing a good job. He said one of the first questions the auditors asked him was when was the last time we did day and night landings at the helipads where we might need to take the royals? He was able to report that he’d done it within the past two weeks.

    The sentence “But we’ve always done it this way,” can turn out to be a trap in any organization and should be questioned occasionally. If we’d been called to transport the king, we would have gotten it terribly wrong. Taking a head of state to the wrong hospital never looks good on a resume. In Saudi Arabia, doing so could have had consequences too dire to contemplate.


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]