As many of you know, I have been in the helicopter industry for 50 years and have loved every minute of it. I must admit that at times I have lost my sense of humor with some of the disingenuous and hypocritical criticism of helicopters I have heard.
One of my favorite examples is an incident in New York City many years ago. I was confronted in a public forum by an elected leader who said helicopters were ruining the lives of his constituents. After declaring his commitment to protecting the community from us, he gathered his family and proceeded to one of the Manhattan heliports to board a helicopter to Kennedy airport, where they caught a flight for their vacation.
Because of the steady opposition to our industry by this guy and others like him, we are losing heliports, prevented from establishing new ones, and being restricted from airspace and our full operational capabilities. The greatest frustration is that generally these negative initiatives are not predicated on research, analysis, or facts. Instead, they are initiated due to misconceptions, political agendas, and raw public emotion.
There are certainly legitimate noise and safety concerns from various stakeholders, including the public, media, elected officials, and regulators, and our industry takes these comments seriously. Our commitment to resolve these issues is long-standing and, most importantly, is reflected in our daily activities.
Programs such as Zero Tolerance – Zero Accidents, the International Helicopter Safety Team, HAI’s Land & LIVE initiative, the HFI Rotor Safety Challenge, and the HAI Accreditation Program of Safety clearly demonstrate our commitment to safety as the first priority.
There have been many public complaints about helicopter noise. In response, HAI has established aggressive operational and training programs such as Fly Neighborly and other community outreach initiatives while working with manufacturers on the implementation of quiet technology.
The good news is that the helicopter industry is committing resources, manpower, and funds to these issues, and we are witnessing positive operational and cultural changes.
So this is the part where I ask, “Don’t we get any credit for all the good we do in the world, especially when you consider that most helicopter operations are performed for the benefit of the greater good of society?” We daily perform missions such as medical transport, law enforcement, disaster relief, search and rescue, aerial firefighting, and electric grid construction and repair, to name a few.
Let’s discuss where some of the negative perceptions about helicopters may be coming from. Many years ago, I participated in a public hearing for a proposed heliport. One woman was vocal in her objections because she believed its operations would pose a safety hazard and noise concern for the nearby neighborhood.
Sensing more to the story, I asked if she had children, and she said yes. I then proposed a hypothetical situation — which, I noted, I hoped would never occur. What if one of her children were critically injured in front of her home and a paramedic advised her that the child had to be transported to a trauma center via helicopter? Would she allow the helicopter to land on her property and transport her child? She unhesitatingly indicated that she would.
Because she was willing to allow the most precious thing in her life, her child, to be transported by helicopter, I then asked her: was it possible that her real objection to the heliport was not safety and noise but because it would be used by business people?
To her credit, she said yes. She felt the businessmen could travel via car, like everyone else. For her, the helicopter stood for something else. Her objections to the heliport were less about its operations than its passengers.
Helicopters are often seen as a symbol of whatever it is that you don’t want, whether it is income inequality or the modern, too-busy world. Yet when an emergency occurs, these same people pray for our help and expect the helicopters to respond.
However, a recent interview with a Hurricane Harvey survivor gives me hope about our future. The man and his family had been stranded by the floodwaters. When asked what it was like to be cut off from the rest of the world, the man said, “I was starting to believe my family and I were going to die. Then I heard the sound of the helicopters, and I knew we would be all right.”
People love us when they need us — and it turns out that they need us every day. They just don’t know it.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Let me know what you think at [email protected].
As always, fly safe — fly neighborly.
Matt Zuccaro is president and CEO of HAI.
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