Read More: Training for IIMC Is Crucial
January 17, 2020

Practicing your instrument skills could save your life.

Despite the fact that inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) continues to be a topic at many helicopter industry safety meetings, these weather-related accidents still occur at an alarming rate. So let’s go back to basics and discuss some potential solutions to this vexing problem.

Poor visibility or instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions mostly means we can’t see outside the aircraft. We may not realize just how much we rely on visual cues from outside, but we find out very quickly when those cues are no longer there and spatial disorientation sets in. The “inadvertent” part makes IIMC even worse because we weren’t expecting the lack of visibility. As a result, we may not be prepared to respond to the situation—a very dangerous condition that leads to accidents.

The two most obvious solutions are to avoid the conditions and to hone your instrument skills. Avoiding the conditions may mean canceling the flight if there’s a significant risk or landing the helicopter as soon as poor conditions become imminent. Preflight risk assessments are very helpful in making a no-go decision.

Training for inadvertent IMC can be a little more complex and is sometimes viewed as an expensive option, but it’s a crucial one. Instrument skills are perishable: their expiration date varies by the pilot’s level of experience and ratings. Regardless of their documented expiration date, however, every pilot’s instrument skills will expire if he or she fails to practice them.

If you don’t practice often, your skills will weaken, at best. Weak skills combined with an unplanned encounter can be fatal. 

Now that we’ve established that practicing your instrument skills is crucial, how often you should do so depends on your comfort level with flying by instruments. If you have an instrument rating and are proficient with the aircraft model, mission, and environment, practicing once or twice a year may be enough. If you don’t have an instrument rating or you’re flying a new aircraft model or in an unfamiliar area, regular practice makes more sense. And it’s important to take that training seriously.

Let’s look at how to train for IMC encounters. There are several ways to practice, all with varying degrees of effectiveness. 

One good method is using a simulator that enables you to practice to all levels of instrument conditions with little or no risk to person or aircraft. Many pilots tell me that training in a simulator can be very humbling because it can show us we’re often not as proficient as we thought we were. This is especially true for IIMC. In other emergencies, such as power loss or hydraulic failure, pilots respond almost by muscle memory, because of their repeated use of the same checklist of response procedures during training. In the case of IIMC, however, muscle memory seems to fade as we lose our sight. The sudden realization that you can’t see can lead to the feeling that you suddenly don’t know what to do because you can’t see the results of what you’re doing. Are you climbing … descending … banking?

Read More: Mentor New Hires to Teach Your Values
August 30, 2019

New hires see most Dirty Dozen problems on Day 1.

Such a bold statement for a subtitle of an article. Or is it?

The first impression when a technician is introduced to the hangar floor or work area is one of the most influential times for that new hire. Within the first few hours, he or she receives a strong impression of your organization, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Unfortunately, some of what they learn may not be what you planned on teaching them. The fact is, several of the Dirty Dozen human factors that lead to aviation maintenance mistakes may be present.

What might that new hire see? Fellow technicians on the floor not following procedure (norms). Confusion over a logbook entry (lack of communication). Wide­spread use of cell phones (distraction). Rushed inspections and sign-offs (complacency). And on and on.

This is not a far-fetched fairy tale that exists in a maintenance area far, far away. It is a reality that affects organizations every day, during every maintenance task and operation. We would all love to say that no Dirty Dozen factors exist in our shop, but in reality, they can show up regularly. (That’s why they’re called human factors—because as humans we are all prone to them.)

How can your organization ensure that a new technician will learn good habits? Is there a way to effectively communicate your organizational values? The solution is simple: a maintenance mentor program.

There may be a significant amount of time between hiring and indoctrination training or orientation within an organization. It is not uncommon for a new-hire technician to feel nervous, intimidated, inexperienced, lost, nonproductive, and more of a liability than an asset. He or she may become confused, surrounded by contradictions of policies versus real-world procedures. They may not stay long with you or worse, they may become the kind of employee you don’t want to keep. Eliminate this unnecessary risk by focusing on the root cause.

Providing a maintenance mentor for new hires gives that new technician an anchor, someone to turn to with questions. Choose a representative who can indoctrinate a new hire into your safety culture starting on Day 1, someone who will lead a new technician toward your organization’s ideal values, policies, and procedures.

Another advantage of a maintenance mentor is that it gives the new technician an assigned point of contact who is available for him or her during the entire shift. This dedicated one-on-one approach opens communication between the new hire and the mentor at the peer level, giving the new technician a feeling of being welcome and the ability to ask questions and get correct procedural answers. No longer feeling lost or uncertain, the technician’s confidence and trust in the organization grows. And in today’s tight labor market, increasing the retention of new employees is an added value.

The maintenance mentor communicates ideal organizational values by demonstrating the right and positive responses to Dirty Dozen situations. The mentor teaches new hires in the best way possible: by modeling desired behaviors and attitudes while tending to actual shop-floor conditions and tasks.

These practical examples endow the new technician with the capacity to assess a current task or operation and the internal compass to understand that it is not OK to submit to external or internal pressures. He or she will recognize potential risk or hazards, communicate by asking questions, and get reassurances that communication is open and received. The mentor assists the technician in mitigating risks or triggering corrective recommendations before work resumes. All this helps the organization to prevent costly mistakes, while also helping the new hire to grow and develop.

Before using maintenance mentors in your organization, make sure you structure it as a program, with clear definitions of how the mentoring is to be done, by whom, when, and using what resources. At a minimum, there should be an outlined objective for the program, providing both the mentor and new technician with a view of the path ahead. To simply assign a mentor with little guidance and no details of the expected outcome is a waste of time. Organizations should also be open to receiving feedback by mentors and mentees and using those comments to improve the program.

A maintenance mentor program is not a replacement for indoctrination or on-the-job training. But it provides organizations with another way to ensure that new hires are learning the right stuff.

Read More: Training to the Individual
May 20, 2019

Flight instruction shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

A colleague of mine once told a story about a student pilot who could not be talked out of making large inputs to his helicopter controls. This never worked, of course, but the student kept making the same mistake, no matter how many times he was corrected. The student didn’t understand how to fix his mistake.

Finally, the instructor asked the student if he had a wife or a girlfriend. “Yes, I have a wife,” said the student. His instructor then asked, “When talking to your wife, if you yell, ‘This is what I want!’—does that communication style work well for you? Or do you get better results by saying a little, then waiting for her to say a little, and then talking back and forth?

“Just make small adjustments to the controls,” said the instructor. “If you communicate with the helicopter, then it will tell you what it needs.”

After this feedback, the student began to get the hang of making smaller control inputs. Whenever he overcorrected, his instructor would say, “Stop yelling at the helicopter.” Over time, the student was able to overcome the bad habit he had struggled with for so long.

We all have different personalities, backgrounds, and ways of viewing the world, and therefore, we all have different ways that we learn. For those of us who are flight instructors, it is our job to see our students as individuals and to find the techniques and strategies that work for them, while still providing the structure that ensures they have the skills and attitudes to be successful, safe pilots.

Not everyone must travel the same path, but we all need to end up at the same destination. Some students will be ready to be a PIC as soon as you give them the controls, while others will consistently rely on their instructor to give them permission to make decisions. Flight instructors must be flexible and able to work with differing personality types, while still enabling each student to reach their potential.

Not only will each student learn differently, but they may learn differently from day to day. A student may come in for a flight lesson tired from a poor night’s sleep. Or she may be worried about something unrelated to flight training. These are just a few of the situations that can affect a student’s ability to learn. Flight training is an excellent time to introduce the student pilot to the importance of human factors in aviation safety and the IMSAFE checklist.

As instructors, it is our job to first read the student’s performance. Are they distracted or tired? Have they prepared for the lesson? Are they having trouble with a particular maneuver?

Next, we must determine how to provide the student with the strategies they need to succeed. The strategy that works for one student may not work for another. That student who was having trouble with flight control inputs had been told many times that he was doing it wrong. But it wasn’t until his instructor told him how to fix the issue—in a way that student could understand and use—that the student could move ahead in his training.

Be aware of the need to adapt your teaching style to suit each student’s learning style. Think of this as a feature, not a bug, of the flight instructor’s job. Your ability to approach students as individuals will make you a better instructor and will reinforce your own knowledge of flight principles.

As your students progress and eventually become pilots and perhaps flight instructors themselves, the foundation that you laid during their training will affect not only what kind of pilot they become, but how they train their students, who will probably go on to teach other students, and so on. The way you teach will affect the industry for years to come.

Read More: Shop Talk
February 26, 2019

Make a plan to share what you learned at the Rotor Safety Challenge.

Don’t look now, but HAI HELI-EXPO 2019 is here. It’s hard to believe the year has gone by so fast.

As you make your plans for attending the show in Atlanta, think about attending some of the great sessions available in the 2019 Helicopter Foundation International (HFI) Rotor Safety Challenge (RSC), sponsored by MD Helicopters. These 60-plus education sessions cover everything from improving pilot proficiency to developing a safety management system to managing aircraft vibration. And they are free to all HAI HELI-EXPO® attendees and exhibitors.

There are tracks for safety, pilots, operations, maintenance, and career development (you can see the complete schedule at Which sessions will you attend? Well, what were some of the hot-button topics in your shop or office this past year? Is there an issue that created a lot of discussion? Use the 2019 RSC to get on top of some of these subjects.

The HFI Rotor Safety Challenge is an outstanding opportunity to network with folks who face the same operational issues that you do. Is keeping track of all the inspection and repair paperwork for your operation a pain? Of course it is! So why not attend the session on best practices in in maintenance recordkeeping (Tuesday, March 5, 9:15 a.m.) and learn how others are coping with it. Get a fresh perspective from the RSC presenter or other attendees. Follow up with the presenter to discuss a particular point.

At a RSC session, you may learn new techniques or operational advances for dealing with common issues. But whether you are an owner/operator, manager, line pilot, or maintenance technician, to really make a difference, you need to share what you’ve learned with your colleagues.

Consider organizing a lunch-and-learn at work around your takeaways from the 2019 Rotor Safety Challenge. A lunch-and-learn is an informal learning opportunity organized around lunch time. Some people “brown-bag” it; some offices order pizza for the group. Meanwhile, everybody gets together to learn something new.

Bringing together different groups to discuss current topics in aviation is one of the best features of lunch-and-learns. Breaking down the silos that divide pilots, maintainers, managers, dispatchers, and office staff and learning more about each other’s challenges can go a long way to improving team functioning and operational efficiency.

Some people structure their lunch-and-learns as a lecture. And if you are only concerned with providing everyone with the same information, such as when announcing a policy change, this is a good format.

However, consider using more of an open forum format for your lunch-and-learn. Encourage discussion. Be open to hearing different opinions and interpretations of certain regulations. While compliance with aviation regulations is a must, our work in the cockpit, hangar, and flight line has a way of exposing the gray areas between regulatory certainties. A spirited discussion of these issues is a good sign—it means your folks are thinking about their work and are not complacent.

Listen carefully to what is being said at the lunch-and-learn. The beliefs and attitudes expressed can alert management to confusion about company policies and procedures as they relate to safety, pilot operations, or maintenance. Remember, in a just culture, the focus is on improving safety. Expressing honest opinions or thoughts, even if—especially if—they expose potentially hazardous conditions, is encouraged.

As a service to HAI members, most of the 2019 RSC sessions will be available online beginning in May. Login to, and you’ll have access to the slide presentation synced to an audio recording of the presentation. These online learning tools can be used to address a particular issue or as content for your next safety meeting.

The HFI Rotor Safety Challenge can be a resource for ongoing safety education throughout the year—even for those who don’t make it to HAI HELI-EXPO. 

Read More: Keeping Perishable Skills Fresh
November 14, 2018

Proficiency is perishable. It’s up to you to keep it fresh.

Training in this industry is all about becoming proficient and staying proficient.

Becoming proficient with an aircraft for both pilots and mechanics requires an extensive initial training course that covers all the systems, procedures, and checklists. After that, proficiency can be maintained through everyday duties and responsibilities.

What about those skills that we don’t use very often? If you have maintained your IFR currency with the minimum requirements for the year, are you ready for that moment when you realize that you are now in the clouds? If you haven’t worked on a turbine engine for five years, are you ready to do that overhaul?

Our challenge is to sustain perishable skills. These are skills that we tend to forget over time, and they can be physical, like committing to an autorotation, or cognitive, such as knowing when to commit to an autorotation.

When we don’t repeat skills very often, we don’t experience the repetition necessary to build muscle memory or cognitive pathways. This is what happens when you learn how to program your new phone. A few months go by, and then you realize you can’t remember how to use some functions. You forgot these perishable skills because you hadn’t done them in some time.

Perishable skills for pilots include instrument procedures, autorotations, or any abnormal or emergency procedure. For a maintenance technician, a perishable skill is any procedure or troubleshooting task not performed on a regular basis.

The most effective way to stay proficient in these perishable skills is training and repetition. Your skills—even the perishable ones—will stay the longest when you learn them to the point of mastery, rather than competency. And to maintain your perishable skills, you need recurrent training: periodically returning to the subject to study or practice more.

Recurrent training should be viewed by the pilot or mechanic as an opportunity to fine-tune skills that are weak or easily forgotten. This requires some internal honest assessment by them to recognize the areas where their skills need to be reinforced. They should consider the training to be an asset instead of a chore.

In some cases, our regulators require additional training to keep our perishable skills current. Regulatory agencies require landings, night flight, and instrument currency on a scheduled basis to maintain proficiency. Mechanics with inspection authorization must provide proof of recently completed tasks or go through biannual training to maintain that authorization. To maintain their instructor status, flight instructors must also prove they have kept current.

Proficiency can also be supported by reading articles and accident reports that discuss the indications and solutions for various events. The knowledge for these skills can be strengthened by studying manuals, doing computer-based training modules, or “armchair flying.”

The Blue Angels use armchair flying to regularly review their entire flight routine. The team sits in a conference room, talking through every step and maneuver in real time. This is an excellent method for reviewing normal flight procedures.

Recognizing indications of abnormal or emergency situations, however, may require more of a visual approach. The use of simulators and real-life scenarios in pilot recurrent training has proven to be quite effective.

The International Helicopter Safety Team has lots of resources that can help pilots and maintenance technicians with issues that we don’t see in our normal operations. Keep current on these resources and share them with your colleagues.

The Internet community also offers a host of resources that will help you to stay current on best practices, including how-to videos. Try it for yourself. Ask your Internet browser a question on a procedure or potential situation in an aircraft and see what you find. Almost everything has a video or internet reference.

You can find information on start procedures, walk-around inspections, emergency indications, and how to track rotor blades. However, do verify that your Internet source for this information is solid. Check details for accuracy, and make sure the article or video references the manufacturer’s published procedures.

As a helicopter professional, please keep in mind that some of your skills are perishable. You can maintain your proficiency by recognizing this fact and continually addressing the challenge. The key to maintaining proficiency in perishable skills is to take recurrent training seriously.