Call me crazy, call me insane — I don’t care. I truly believe we can achieve zero accidents in the helicopter industry. Maybe not tomorrow, not in the next few years, or not even in my lifetime. But ultimately we can and will accomplish this goal.
At a recent safety forum, I was challenged by an audience member who expressed his opinion that any time humans engage in the operation of machinery, in this case with helicopters, it is a statistical certainty that an accident will occur.
Well, there we have it. Let’s all pack up our tents, go home, and just wait for the inevitable accident to happen.
Just checking to see if you were paying attention. I am not ready to surrender — not now, not ever. There is only one safety goal we should work toward, and that is zero accidents in the helicopter industry.
With this thought in mind, I think we should reconsider how we set safety goals. Does it really make sense to say “let’s reduce accidents by 20 percent”? That’s just another way of saying “we had five accidents this year, and next year we want to have four.” While improving safety is always a commendable goal, we are indirectly stating that we are willing to accept a certain number of accidents — and that is a statement I am never willing to make.
The way I see it, our industry is on a journey, traveling down a highway toward Zero Accidents. We may not know how long the trip is going to take, but we can post mile markers during the journey and identify various milestones of accident reduction while making adjustments as necessary to speed our journey.
Some elements that will assist in creating a safer environment and help achieve our goal of zero accidents include technological advancements, enhanced reliability of equipment and systems, appropriate training, and more operations conducted under instrument flight rules. However, I believe our greatest challenge in achieving zero accidents is our industry culture. We must change the philosophy of “Safety First, Above All Else” from a slogan to a reality that is practiced every day, for every flight.
Decision-making and risk assessment must focus on one question: can we complete this operation safely? Stop worrying about disappointing the boss or customer, risking the contract, or even saving a life — let’s just focus on conducting a safe operation. The only plan worth sticking to is a plan to conduct a thorough preflight, assess and mitigate flight risks, and practice good aeronautical decision-making, with a safe landing as the goal.
One significant program that has started to move the industry culture in the right direction is the HFI Land & LIVE initiative or, as I like to advise, “When safety is in question, land the damn helicopter!”
We land helicopters everywhere and anywhere all day long — it’s literally what our industry does. Yet when the flight isn’t going well and we should land to address deteriorating weather, low fuel, mechanical concerns, or another issue, we do not. Instead, pilots push on, with grave results.
Why don’t we make precautionary landings when we need to? We worry that the landing was not part of the original plan, the passengers or company will get mad, the FAA will have something to say, or that local authorities on the ground will be upset with us.
HAI looked into what really happens when precautionary landings are made. In the majority of instances, passengers, operators, regulators, and others express support and appreciation for the decision to land.
Frankly, the opinions of those who weren’t supportive don’t matter. Do their concerns justify not making the precautionary landing and instead continuing the flight, possibly resulting in the deaths of all on board the aircraft and some people on the ground? I think not.
I would rather make the precautionary landing. If the FAA, my company, customer, or local authorities have either compliments or complaints about the landing, we can discuss them on the ground, over a cup of coffee. (By the way, you can learn more about precautionary landings, including resources for pilots, operators, and first responders, at landandlive.rotor.org.)
As good as we think we are and as committed to each flight, we will not transport every patient, tourist, company executive, news reporter, family member, or friend. Nor will we fight every fire, do every external load, or film every event. Not if our industry truly puts safety first above everything else.
Help me achieve the dream: no helicopter accidents. We can do it if we really want to.
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.