Read More: Minimal vs. Optimal
July 18, 2018

Aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle flew the first instrument approach on September 24, 1929. Actually, he flew two instrument approaches that day. The first one was in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), but before witnesses arrived to document the milestone, the weather had cleared. Doolittle1 performed the second instrument approach with a hood, or blind, as it was referred to in that period

Being able to see from the cockpit was no longer required for safe flight — and this was only two years after Lindbergh’s historic nonstop solo transatlantic flight.

Lucky Lindbergh was lucky indeed. During his 34-hour flight, he encountered many poor weather conditions, including thunderstorms and sea fog. While there is no doubt Lindbergh logged a considerable amount of instrument flight time on his journey, I guess it doesn’t count when the term instrument flight — not to mention some of the basic instruments — had not yet been invented.

The helicopter is an amazing machine but perfecting vertical flight was not easy: more than 35 years separated the inaugural flight of the Wright brothers from Igor Sikorsky’s first helicopter ride in 1939. But we are fortunate that he persevered.

In addition to cruise flight, helicopters have the ability to hover and to fly very slowly for prolonged periods. This makes it a versatile machine with unique capabilities. However, because of its relatively high operating and maintenance costs, the helicopter is more of a tool in a kit bag for performing a job or task than a pleasure craft.

Because we use this magnificent tool to perform a job, that job often takes priority over the enjoyment of flying the machine. In a nutshell, we are paid to perform a job and the helicopter is the tool we use to accomplish it.

My question is this: does completing the job outweigh, or get in the way of, aeronautical decision-making? Yes, I know it’s a complicated question. I have not forgotten what it’s like to spend hours staring at a radar screen and pacing from the weather window to the computer screen, asking myself: If I were to get a flight request right now, what would I say?

The go/no-go question is complicated by the type of flight we have to accomplish, the time of day, the aircraft we are using, and the crew we have for the flight — and the weather we will be flying in. One of the biggest bets every pilot in command makes upon liftoff is this: I believe I can fly and land this aircraft safely in the weather I am experiencing now and the weather as forecast.

But what are the no-go weather conditions? In the United States, our regulator, the FAA, has something to say on this matter.

In the November/December 2017 FAA Safety Briefing magazine, a chart on page 2 defines visual flight rules (VFR) conditions as a ceiling equal to or greater than 3,000 feet and visibility equal to or greater than 5 miles. Marginal VFR is a 1,000- foot ceiling up to 3,000 feet and visibility from 3 miles up to 5 miles. The Aviation Weather Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses the same definitions (see table 1).

Read More: PiNC Awareness: Don't Rationalize Skipping Steps
May 13, 2018

As a helicopter professional, you’re probably familiar with the concepts of rationalization and procedural intentional noncompliance (PiNC).
For example, let’s say you get to the base in the morning. It’s early, cold, and time to start doing your job. One of your medical crewmembers is whipping up some breakfast, and the off-going crew is hanging around, talking about one of the transports that took place during the night.

That mission was the perfect storm of everyone having to bring their A game, a multi-helicopter scene request with a lot of moving pieces. A great example of teamwork and crew coordination within your aircraft and with the other aircraft on scene. High‑fives all around!

In talking about all the excitement, you allow yourself to get out of your routine. Your preflight inspection is subpar, mainly just checking the fluid levels. But hey, you have inspected this aircraft and flown it in the past two days and everything was fine. You don’t pull a fuel sample — it’s a little windy and you don’t want to risk getting fuel on your flight suit. Besides, you have never had a problem with your airport’s fuel.

These small adjustments from standard operating procedures are examples of PiNC — when a person knowingly disregards an established or required procedure. PiNC does not always lead to an accident or incident, but in many cases when a mishap occurs, PiNC turns up as a causal factor.

PiNC is one of the reasons why human error is a factor in 80 percent of aviation accidents. After all, aircraft are machines. They have no feelings or concerns, and they don’t come in tired on Mondays or stressed from dealing with Mom’s hospitalization. Unlike people, aircraft don’t have bad days or good ones, and they don’t mind performing the same task over and over and over. They either perform properly or they don’t.

People, on the other hand, are prone to all of the above. We get tired, grumpy, stressed, and bored. Here is where our brain will let us down or deceive us. It has the ability to rationalize our behavior, to lure us into PiNC.

For example, you may think, “The weather doesn’t meet my personal minimums or the company minimums, but I am not flying very far, so it will be fine.” Or, “I do not need to sump the fuel tanks today because I am in a hurry, and besides, I’ve never found any water in my fuel tanks.” Or even, “I don’t need a work stand to inspect the top side of the rotor blades because our rotor blades are low time and we have never had any cracked blades.”

There are as many rationalizations as there are pilots, mechanics, and days of the year. Accident reports are filled with rationalizations masked by good intentions.

If any of these rationalizations sound familiar, it is because I have been in these positions and know it happens. It takes honest discipline to be in an industry where you are the daily decision-maker, the one who is counted on to do the right thing. Even when no one is watching. Even when it is inconvenient to do so.
I am talking to both pilots and mechanics now. In many professional settings, you have co-workers or a boss to verify your work, to review your decisions. But when your mechanic says he or she performed the rotor blade inspection in accordance with the maintenance manual or the approved aircraft inspection program and signed off on the work in the aircraft logbook, normally no one else validates that statement. The integrity of a certificated aviation professional is the only link between the ink on a document and the safety of an aircraft.

When the pilot says he or she did a preflight inspection of the helicopter, everyone onboard that aircraft presumes the inspection was performed to the established standard and the aircraft is in an airworthy condition. After all, the pilot said so.

We are justifiably proud of being aviation professionals. The other side of that coin is that we must act like professionals — always.

Whether you call it rationalizing or PiNC, let’s do the right thing and do what is required. It will make us better aviators and mechanics. It will strengthen our position with our co‑workers and passengers, and it will encourage our critics to change their opinions.

Politely challenge your comrades to keep the standard high. If they are doing the right thing, they won’t mind.

Fugere tutum!