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Author: Matt Johnson

Conquering thy hazards and taming thy risks

There are many definitions for the word “hazard.” Once definition states that, “a hazard is a present condition or circumstance that could lead or contribute to an unplanned or undesired event such as an accident.”

Many aviation risks are born of hazardous conditions and attitudes that are the direct result of a cultural acceptance that has promulgated over a period of time. Operational mindsets, including the mission-type mentality often involve the “that’s the way we do it” or “that’s how we’ve always done it” or even “we have got to get this done” type of organizational, or even personal inadequacy. Bad habits such as this and the lack of organizational leadership have given birth to many unnecessary risks that have led to numerous fatal accidents. Many organizations or pilots operating this way have no idea what right looks like.

Why does it occur?

As the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss. The reality is that many operators only know “right” after an accident or incident and everything has been brought to the forefront. Normally this happens through an investigative body or in some form of an outside audit. You know the operators that say “we haven’t had an accident in 20-plus years, we obviously are doing things right.” In many cases it is only by the grace of God that the holes didn’t line-up for those operators with a negligent mindset.

How to fix it

I would  never suggest that all risks can be eliminated. However, I believe that many of the risks we face in our industry can be eliminated with the identification and subsequent conquering of organizational hazards. As alluded earlier, you don’t know what you don’t know. The way to educate yourself about the hazards within your organization or your own workflow involves work, time, and serious commitment. Additionally, you have to seek out those with some specialized knowledge.

Fortunately, much of the work is already out there and readily available. In the air medical industry Flight Risk-Assessment Tools (FRAT) are not only utilized but mandated by regulation. I am amazed to more outside that community know nothing of FRATs or how to use them. Or if they have heard of them they thing they are too small of a unit to use something like that. Sadly, I’ve heard that exact statement on more than one occasion. No unit is too small to collectively weigh the risks involved for a particular flight or shift. Not doing so is negligent. There is much to be learned and adopted from other sectors of the aviation industry.

In a perfect world and with a workable budget, a good place to start is with an outside analysis of the organization. This will give the organization an idea of what hazards are present and more importantly, how to mitigate those hazards. While most operators have absolutely no desire to have an outsider look at their organization in great detail, the function of an external audit is to ensure that an organization’s internal controls, processes, guidelines, and policies are not only adequate and effective but that they are in compliance. This level of compliance involves governmental requirements (federal aviation regulations), industry standards, and organizational/departmental policies. Much of a proper audit will identify the hazards and subsequent risks that are blind to the organization.

For nearly all facets of our industry, organizations can find best practices other organizations have already implemented for improving their own risk management practices. While you may not agree with all of the recommended industry practices, many of them do have a great deal of merit and warrant serious consideration.

Is it possible to conquer all hazards? Not likely, but not making an effort to find out what you don’t know about your organization or your own flying could be the first link in an accident chain. Industry best practices are out there. Seek them out and tame many of the risks in your operations.

The indispensable AFD

I’m not talking about the handy little green book that so many of us lugged around for years prior to the advent of wonderful flight apps like Foreflight.

I’m talking about an AFD in a totally different realm of aviation-the Aviation Forecast Discussion. The AFD has become an absolutely indispensable part of my daily and subsequent on-going weather “go-to” resources as a helicopter pilot.

What is it?

For starters, have you ever read a terminal forecast and wondered what the heck were they thinking when they made the forecast? Now you can know exactly what they were thinking. The Aviation Forecast Discussion quite simply is a discussion on the particular elements that made a particular TAF or set of TAF’s for a geographical region. I’m not suggesting this is a new product but in my experience it surely seems to be a great source that many pilots know nothing about. AFDs are issued by each Weather Forecast Office (WFO) and essentially describe weather conditions within their particular region.

As described on the NOAA Aviation Weather Center’s website the AFD, “provides the local office forecaster’s thoughts, reasoning, and uncertainty factors considered for aviation weather, ceiling, and visibility information contained in the TAFs.” Wow! This is a powerful statement. This is more than a TAF that has been “translated” via an app or other software process. The AFD offers insight from the forecaster on why one may see the presence (or lack thereof) of various conditions in a TAF. Additionally, the AFD may very well contain various aviation related weather issues that cannot be encoded into the TAF. Conveniently the AFD is typically generated every 6 hours to coincide with the release of the latest TAF for a particular WFO.

Let’s take a look

Let’s take a look at one example. On a warm summer late afternoon in the Southwestern Ohio Valley this is the colorful radar snapshot of what I saw on the screen.

radar

And this was the most recent TAF for the area:

KCVG 041730Z 0418/0524 25006KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB
FM050100 VRB03KT P6SM SCT060
FM050900 VRB03KT 5SM BR SKC
FM051300 13004KT P6SM SCT040
FM051900 09005KT P6SM BKN050

By looking at the radar snapshot and the TAF it was obvious the forecaster had some uncertainty about when the storm may move out of the area as indicated by the “VCTS” in the trend section of the TAF and not listed at any particular timeframe.

When going to the AFD for that area and taking a quick read it was obvious why the TAF appeared the way that it did and the radar showed something totally different (for a particular timeframe).

This is what the AFD contained:

AFD

BINGO! The AFD told me many things that clarified the current conditions that I was observing. As predicted in the TAF the conditions would in fact improve, but isolated showers and thunderstorms were popping up across the area due to a continued warm and unstable airmass. This made it difficult for the forecaster to be more precise in the TAF as evidenced by the statement, “tough to time the storms in to any of the TAF sites though so will stick with the trend of covering the threat with a VCTS through the daytime period.” What was evident based on the TAF and the AFD was that the thunderstorm activity was dissipating much slower than expected but one could in fact expect improving conditions as it related to the showers and storms. (But note the possibility of “patchy MVFR” and the probability that the same airmass will be in place the following day.) 

How to find the AFD for your area

The AFD can be easily accessed. Simply go to www.aviationweather.gov and click on “FORECASTS” and scroll down to “Aviation Forecast Discussion.” From there simply click on the region you are most interested in.

After clicking on your region you will get a textual discussion from that particular WFO giving you an idea of what to expect.

It’s free, it’s basic and just a few sentences from the AFD can give you an idea of the “big picture” of what to expect for a small geographic area.

Master your environment

Helicopter pilots work in an amazing, ever-changing environment. The skills necessary to accomplish the task at hand require a high level of concentration, ability, and finesse. Whether it is flying circles around some of God’s greatest work, air medical operations, or instructing the next generation of helicopter pilots how well you utilize your skills can easily be determined by how aware you are with all components of your flying duties. In other words, you must be fully involved and a master of your environment.

WHAT IS YOUR ENVIRONMENT?

You can’t master what you don’t know. Environment can be defined as “the setting or conditions in which a particular activity is carried on.” The activity is easily defined as flying, however, it is the setting or conditions that can make or break you. It would be impossible to list all of the components that define a particular flying environment but several are common to most, if not all, flight operations. These mainstays include: aircraft, airspace, weather, and regulations.

AIRCRAFT If you really want to get to know your aircraft, its systems, and emergency procedures, make a plan to review the Rotorcraft Flight Manual on a regular basis. Pick a chapter in the RFM each month of the year and review it religiously. Know the RFM inside and out.

AIRSPACE I used to wonder why designated pilot examiners and check airmen were so stringent about airspace during checkrides. After a few years of operational flying and getting the life scared out of me by people that didn’t know understand it, I realized why this was a pet-peeve of many examiners. Not knowing airspace is like driving in a foreign country with road signs in a language you can’t begin to comprehend. If it has been a while since you actually used a sectional chart to navigate the various classes of airspace here is a good way to humble yourself; on one of your next flights turn the GPS off. Use good old fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning to find your way. Ask yourself where you are on the chart, where you came from, and where you are going. What airspace are you travelling through? What are the weather minimums? What equipment is required? Transponder? Who do you need to talk to? On what frequency? You get the idea. If you are going to master your environment you must know everything about the airspace you are transiting in and out of.

I have a rule about avionics and eyeballs that are in any aircraft I am flying. No avionics or eyeballs ride for free. If you got’em use them! As an example, if you have two GPS systems use both of them. Use one for your destination and the other for a nearby airport close to your departure area that has an instrument approach in the event you inadvertently fly in to the clouds shortly after take-off.

WEATHER If you think all you need to know about weather comes from those ridiculous questions on the FAA knowledge exams you are mistaken. Most areas experience some sort of regional microclimate. Get to know the weather patterns in your area and when to expect them. If you are flying in an area unfamiliar to you, reach out to other helicopter pilots and pick their brains on local weather patterns. The accident statistics are full of stories about helicopter pilots that didn’t have a working knowledge of local weather patterns.

REGULATIONS In this day and age of technology the current regulations can easily be placed in electronic format on all of your neat gadgets. Know all of the regulations that apply to your particular operations and know them well. If you don’t understand a particular regulation, seek clarification. Wiggle-room has no place when The Man is ready to take enforcement action against you. A quick survey of NASA reports shows several high-time pilots making mistakes involving regulations. Like the Rotorcraft Flight Manual, the federal regulations pertaining to your certificate privileges and operating activities need a periodic review.

HOW TO STAY SHARP? Whatever you do, don’t lose the awe factor. Not long ago I read a story about a 39-year physician. This fellow was in his late 80’s, and he still went to the office every day. His friends and family tried to get him to retire, but he simply refused. He had invented a procedure that he had performed more than 10,000 times. He was asked in an interview if he ever got tired of doing it, if it ever got old. He said, “No. The reason why is because I act like every operation is my very first one.” If you find yourself losing that awe of spooling up and pulling pitch, it may be time for a break. Taking pride in what you do and doing it with excellence can foster an attitude that enables you to master your environment.

Why are we surprised?

After reading a recent accident report I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Then I got upset and mumbled under my breath “why am I surprised?” In fact, why would anyone be surprised? This blood boiling piece involved the 2013 Alaska Department of Public Safety fatal helicopter accident. It is nearly impossible to recap all of the details of this tragedy in one short article, especially when the NTSB’s final report contained hundreds of pages of facts and circumstances leading to the cause of the accident. However, in general, three lives were lost when an Airbus AS350 crashed near Talkeetna, Alaska, when the helicopter inadvertently flew into instrument conditions during a search and rescue operation.

The NTSB probable cause finding was: “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into deteriorating weather conditions, which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control. Also causal was the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s punitive culture and inadequate safety management, which prevented the organization from identifying and correcting latent deficiencies in risk management and pilot training. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s exceptionally high motivation to complete search and rescue missions, which increased his risk tolerance and adversely affected his decision-making.”

Few pilots like to second-guess an accident situation, especially when it involves an industry colleague who was fatally injured or killed. But many of the facts regarding the Alaska Trooper accident will make you want to pull your hair out. Several of the facts surrounding this accident are worth highlighting to help prevent such an accident from happening again.

The weather at the time of the initial flight request and during the actual operation was less than ideal. The investigation revealed the pilot was likely blinded by heavy snow fall, low-hanging clouds, and near-zero visibility conditions. According to the NTSB, marginal to worsening conditions were to be expected based on forecasts and current observations. In addition, it was night and the pilot was wearing night vision goggles. Like so many other helicopter accidents we read about he was flying an aircraft not certificated nor equipped for flight in IMC. Although the NTSB’s probable cause made no mention of icing as a contributing factor, icing conditions were ideal at the time of the accident. This is just one of the many factors that would have been obvious with a proper preflight weather analysis.

Should this flight have ever occurred? Absolutely not. Did the operator have weather minimums in place? If you want to call it that. The investigation revealed the Alaska DPS had weather minimums of 500 foot ceiling and 2 miles visibility, which is crazy. What is even more alarming is that the investigation revealed the pilot had set his “own minimums” to include a 200 foot ceiling. This is absolutely ridiculous. Why was a culture like this ever allowed to exist? More on this later.

So, we know the pilot found himself flying in the aforementioned conditions and he lacked the “equipment” but did he possess the necessary skills to survive this type of encounter? No, and here’s why. The accident pilot had not flown a helicopter in IMC conditions since 1986, almost three decades before the crash. Furthermore, it was determined the pilot had no recent or proper training on how to recover from inadvertent IMC encounters.

As previously mentioned, the accident pilot was utilizing NVGs. The investigation revealed the pilot had minimal NVG training. In fact, his only recorded training involving the use of NVGs was in 2003 (10 years prior to the accident) from other pilots within the organization who themselves had questionable NVG training. So, armed with this factual information, why would anyone be surprised by the outcome of this flight?

The NTSB did more than finger-pointing at just the pilot in this case. The culture within the Alaska DPS was also put on trial. Numerous findings were made that detailed agency shortcomings, including a lack of organizational policy to ensure that operational risk is appropriately managed, a lack of mission-specific training, and a lack of adequate information about best practices for helicopter inadvertent instrument meteorological training, just to name a few.

This case could very well be a game changer within the helicopter industry. As a result of the investigation the NTSB made three safety recommendations to the FAA and seven safety recommendations not only to the State of Alaska, but also for 44 additional states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. This case may very well be the catalyst that will spark many changes much like those witnessed in the HEMS industry in recent years. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an accident like this to blaze a new trail.

As always, I may be alone but I’m afraid not. So what say you?

Why wait?

We have a lot of great safety related resources in the industry. If you are flying professionally and have made it to that career goal you set years ago you may be familiar with most of these great resources. However, for reasons I cannot fathom many of these great resources are only introduced after a pilot makes it to his or her career position, whether it is HEMS or another side of the industry. This has to change!

Any HEMS pilot is all too familiar with a risk assessment (RA) tool. In fact, the regulations now require their use. The use of a risk assessment tool is a reminder that every flight has some level of risk associated with it and can sometimes open one’s eyes to previously unforeseen safety culprits. Say what you will, but a properly utilized risk assessment tool can be a tremendous asset when utilized correctly. So, why wait? Why are we waiting until a pilot reaches that first HEMS job at 2,000 or more hours to introduce them to this risk management tool? Why do we have to wait until he hits the 2,000 hour mark to make him safe and professional?

So much time is spent with a new primary flight student on learning to fly that many important facets are being neglected. Any CFI will remember studying the laws of learning and particularly the law of primacy. It states that those things learned first tend to stick with the student throughout his or her flying career. Instead of waiting for 2,000 hours to pass, why not teach the importance of the risk-management process (and tool) from the very beginning? And I do mean from the very first flight; the new student watches the CFI conduct a preflight risk assessment and explains what he or she is doing and more importantly why they are doing it. I have heard of just a couple flight schools utilizing risk assessment tools with students for flight training and I strongly applaud them! Hopefully others will follow suit.

We have other amazing resources for students. The United States Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) does a great job of conducting and providing analysis of helicopter accidents for the purpose of distributing “lessons learned” type of information. This group has produced dozens of nice training bulletins and fact sheets. They should be mandatory reading for any new student. But sadly I am finding that many beginning pilots have no idea what the USHST is. Why wait? CFIs should take the time to introduce the USHST to all of their students. Their website provides mounds of good useful reading material.

Unfortunately air medical related accidents have surfaced on a near regular basis in the United States. Many of the accidents involve inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions. Many in the industry have taken note and developed various mitigation strategies. One of those strategies is an absolutely ingenious concept developed by the National EMS Pilots Association (NEMSPA). This group of highly talented professionals created the Enroute Decision Point (EDP). Simply stated, this concept says that pilots should establish a “trigger-point” when flying in less than perfect weather conditions. Their recent campaign has pushed a “down by 30” concept. This philosophy says that when a pilot finds himself in a deteriorating weather condition that requires him to reduce airspeed by 30 knots it is time to land or turn-around–or go IFR if capable. This is a great concept so, why wait? Why are we as an industry waiting until a pilot reaches the HEMS pilot hour requirements before we teach him this life-saving technique? Inadvertent IMC accidents and are not limited to the HEMS part of the industry.

And finally, Matt Zuccaro and the other fine folks at Helicopter Association International (HAI) have developed the “Land & Live” program. This concept stresses the importance that a pilot should land the helicopter before the situation becomes an emergency, such as in the case of a chip-light, low-fuel, or weather situation. The program has a strong emphasis towards commercial operators to not have a punitive culture for pilots that use good judgment and make the decision to “Land & Live”. This concept may sound like common-sense to many but all too often we read of situations where the outcome could have been entirely different had a pilot used this simple concept. So, why wait? Why not introduce this philosophy very early on in a student’s training?

This article has covered just a sample of the various philosophies and techniques that are being used by the most experienced pilots in our industry. If I haven’t made it clear, we as an industry need to start teaching these and other great safety practices to student pilots very early in their training.

Downwind takeoffs and the inherent danger involved

Humans like to push limits. Many have found themselves coasting into the next gas station on fumes, or worse, on the side of the highway. Sadly, this is the same mindset we can fall in to with downwind takeoffs. “I had no problem with a 5 or 6 knot tailwind takeoff last time,” or “I’ve taken off with a 10 knot tailwind. I don’t know why another 5 knots would hurt anything.” You get the point. “Permissible” downwind takeoff limits have often been debated. After all, the only thing two helicopter pilots can agree on is what the third one is doing wrong.

Our self-rationalization can get us in trouble in a hurry. What was a 5 knot tailwind takeoff one day will build progressively until you “accidentally” find out just what that tailwind limit is! I’m not implying that a 3 to 5 knot tailwind takeoff will get you hurt or killed. What I am saying is don’t fall prey to that “I’ll just go a little more this time” mentality that has been known to find its way inside helicopter cabins. It exists and sadly I see it more frequently than I care to admit.

THE MECHANICS

If a picture is worth a thousand words a diagram is worth a thousand explanations (or at least one). Let’s take a look at the mechanics of downwind takeoffs from a technical, yet practical explanation with a basic graphic representation.

Looking at this generic diagram we see three different helicopters each with a certain amount of power being used depending on the airspeed of the helicopter or the relative wind the blades are utilizing. At first sight of the diagram it should remind you of a basic power curve diagram and the fact that our wonderful machines are the only vehicle known to man that take more power to go slower. The power required curve could represent TQ (torque) required for a turbine helicopter or MP (manifold pressure) required. You will see at the bottom of the power required curve we have the “bucket-speed” or the speed at which we get the greatest airspeed for the smallest amount of power required. This “bucket-speed” area should be familiar as it is normally the best autorotative speed range as well. Looking at Helicopter #1 we see a helicopter at or near max power while in a 0-airspeed hover; in or out of ground effect, it makes no difference for this explanation. Granted, it will not always take max power to hover but consider Helicopter #1 at or very near max power for this explanation. Following along with the example helicopters you will see that helicopter #2 now has 15 knots of forward or headwind airspeed and the amount of power required is substantially less than the power required for that 0-airspeed hover. This concept in and of itself is no surprise (or shouldn’t be) to even the most novice students. It is helicopter #3 where we can get into trouble!

Looking at helicopter #3 we see that we have 15 knots of reward or tailwind airspeed. Looking at the power required we see that it is a mirror image of the power required for helicopter #2. It takes the same amount of power, in theory, to hover with a 15 knot tailwind as it does a 15 knot headwind. If you do this bring your tap shoes because you will be dancing on the pedals. (For the sake of aerodynamic argument tail rotor authority and increases in power required with use of the tail rotor are excluded from the equation.) Another way to look at this explanation is that the blades don’t care where the 15 knots of wind is coming from; in essence, with a 15 knot tailwind you could visualize the retreating and advancing blades (as you know them to be) have essentially traded places. I’m certainly not telling you to make a habit of hovering with a tailwind! A host of factors dictate why you shouldn’t, including loss of tail rotor effectiveness issues; yaw stability; longitudinal stability issues due to wind getting under (or over) large stabilizer surfaces; and potential TOT and compressor stall issues in turbine machines.

So, if we have a 15 knot tailwind as seen with helicopter #3 and we commence a downwind takeoff the rotor system is starting with a minus 15 knots of “support,” and therefore must outrun the tailwind and lose the translational lift that it had while stationary. Guess what? That takes more power! Essentially by taking off with this 15 knot tailwind you must use the power necessary to reach the power required area of a 0-airspeed helicopter as we described with helicopter #1. At this point you have a ground speed of 15 knots but the rotor system is experiencing a forward relative airflow of zero; you are getting no help from translational lift, and soon the helicopter will begin to descend. Remember where you are at this point; at or near max power. With the helicopter sinking you add more power, which increases the need for tail rotor robbing you of even more power. This is why I referenced “at or near max power” above. If you were faced with this situation, heavy, and in less than ideal performance conditions you may not have enough power and pedal to get you “over the hump” of the zero airspeed point. This dangerous and often overlooked downwind takeoff condition sets the table for a hazardous cycle.takeoff cycle

While many have fallen prey to pushing the limit with the low fuel light in their car, one must realize that pushing the limit with downwind takeoffs can lead to disastrous results. We must resist the temptation to gradually increase our accepted risk level regarding downwind takeoffs. Obviously with the right power margin and ideal conditions taking off with a certain amount of tailwind speed gradient is possible and can be made safely. It is human nature that we must avoid.

As always, I may be alone, but I doubt it. What say you?

The mysteries of the height-velocity curve

Call it what you want; height-velocity curve, dead-man’s curve or even limiting height-speed envelope for those who like sophisticated phrases. The “dead-man’s curve” is probably a carryover from our fixed-wing brethren while the industry generally accepts the simple reference of “H/V curve”. The inside of the curve is the area from which it will be difficult or nearly impossible to make a safe landing following an engine failure if you are in the same conditions depicted with respect to airspeed and altitude.

The H/V (height-velocity) diagram is a staple in the helicopter arena but sadly is often misunderstood by student and instructors alike. So, let’s take a look at what it is and how it is developed.

What is it?

The Height-Velocity diagram (curve) is a chart showing various heights above the ground with a combination of a velocity (indicated airspeed) where successful autorotation and landing is or is not possible. This magical combination of numbers yields two major regions on the chart; the area above the knee and the area below the knee. These areas are what actually plot much of the “curve”.  During initial helicopter certification, test pilots evaluate several characteristics of the helicopter that help determine the H/V curve. These factors include the helicopters initial response to a power loss, steady-state descent performance and power-off landing characteristics and capabilities.

Unknown to many, the development of the H/V curve and its associated number combinations is based on “pilot minimum skill level”. So, in a perfect world this means if the engine fails while I’m going this fast (KIAS) and at this height a pilot at a “minimum skill level” should be able to make a successful autorotation and hopefully some resemblance of a landing.

How do we define the pilot “minimum skill level?” That is a question I and many others can’t answer. Many will agree the current practical test standards are somewhat lacking and aren’t necessarily cultivating the “minimum skill level” necessary.

HVDiagramR44

No cookies for me please

To delve into this quandary let us recap the typical sequence of an autorotation training exercise. The instructor has the student line the helicopter up with the runway so that the power-recovery phase of the autorotation will occur as closely to the runway numbers as possible. Sound familiar? You know what I’m talking about, the “3, 2, 1, roll-off power” etc.

It’s the same thing with a 180-degree autorotation where the student is taught where to “fail” the engine based on tailwind strength and land at the “spot” within the practical test standard. Is there really anything practical about it?  Just what, if an engine failure occurs in the real world and the only spot you have is 600 feet directly below you? Could you get there? Safely? What about engine failures at night time with the same situation, the only place to go is directly below you or just out in front of you. If you remember anything from this article remember this, autorotations are like fingerprints in that no two are exactly the same.

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