Safely Emerging from an Emergency
A typical day in the life of a helicopter pilot is anything but typical. Unlike airplane pilots, who usually only fly from point A to point B, “point B” for a helicopter pilot might involve plucking stranded survivors off rooftops after a flood or landing on a highway to pick up accident victims. During high-stress missions such as these, pilots must handle changing elements on the fly while maintaining a high margin of safety.
All pilots face unpredictable conditions delivered by Mother Nature. Wind, precipitation, temperature — each of these has been a contributing factor in accident and incident reports. During times of great need, when lives are at stake, pilots must carefully weigh risk levels to ensure the safe completion of the mission.
Performing in an emergency response role calls for flight crews to make split-second decisions while operating with many unknowns. The pressures are enough to push pilots and helicopters beyond their certified capabilities. One thing’s for sure, working under emergency response conditions is not for the faint of heart.
Helicopter pilots must take proactive measures in case they encounter unexpected conditions when responding to emergency situations. If the conditions get too crummy, there’s a high probability such conditions will only get worse before they get better.
One simple resource available in deteriorating conditions is called a trigger point. According to this strategy, when pilots find themselves in conditions requiring them to max out their personal limitations, they have reached a trigger point. At trigger points, pilots are encouraged to land, turn around, or abort the mission to break this potential accident chain.
Risk management plays a key role in maintaining safety, especially in emergency response situations. Another tool available to pilots is a flight risk-assessment tool (FRAT). A FRAT enhances situational awareness for crew members in even small, seemingly innocuous situations. FRATs serve as a simple reminder that every flight has some degree of risk and can help reveal previously unseen hazards before they get out of hand.
Although pilots must absorb a lot of information at any given time, flight instructors and check airmen must emphasize the importance of assessing flight risks before any flight leaves the ground. More and more training institutions are utilizing standardized FRATs in their programs as they recognize that building a successful safety culture is a continuous improvement process.
As with any complicated task such as flying helicopters during life-saving events, preparation plays a key role in success. In most cases, the amount of preparation conducted behind the scenes is usually reflected in the overall results. It’s always better to over-prepare for a critical flight than to be caught off guard and surprised by the unexpected.
Flight environments can change without warning, leaving pilots shaking their heads in disbelief. To help mitigate this uncertainty, it’s important to always have a plan B in place should you become uncomfortable with plan A. Plans are likely to change, and pilots are encouraged to develop any flight plan with contingency and flexibility in mind.
The use of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and professional discipline can strongly influence one’s ability to handle unusual circumstances when lives are a stake. SOPs can add structure and an enhanced level of safety by implementing best practices and techniques applicable to unusual mission profiles when the pressure and stakes are high. Implementing SOPs should be encouraged by all flight operations, regardless of the type of operations being conducted.
Multitasking between various tasks during time-critical missions is extremely important for ensuring safety. A contributing factor to many accidents is when pilots become distracted by low-priority issues they have no way of influencing. The attempt to save a stranded person on the ground can rapidly shift a pilot’s attention away from maintaining safety for the crew members and passenger already onboard the aircraft.
Studies indicate preoccupation with one priority is most likely to be detrimental to the accurate completion of another. When trying to sort through priorities, pilots must consider the level of urgency, the criticality of the event, and the amount of time a situation is going to require to achieve resolution. An emergency on the ground should never trigger an emergency onboard the aircraft.
Bottom line: When time is ticking away and the pressure is on, take a few extra seconds to slow down. Make logical and safe decisions, and don’t let an emergency response situation become an emergency in the cockpit.
Steve Sparks is HAI’s director of safety and serves as coordinator for the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team