This industry needs a new approach to training--at least as far as insurers are concerned. And they should know.
Have you ever watched a figure-skating champion twirl, jump and soar, then land on that slippery surface and wonder how he does that flawlessly and apparently effortlessly? As they say in the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall, the answer is practice, practice, practice.
Assessing how much and how well pilots and operators "practice" is a key factor in how the insurance industry assesses the best "risks" to insure. Insurers consider other factors, such as the complexity of the aircraft used and their missions or operations. But insurers know that the more you improve your skills, the safer you will fly.
Your training record allows an insurer to measure your competency in an aircraft and compare that with your history of loss claims and historic values to rate and qualify your risk. He can look at your training record and get an idea whether he is dealing with someone in the same league as a champion or one more akin to an amateur skater. The amount and level of training an underwriter will look for and require will differ, for instance, depending on whether you operate a Cessna 152 or a Eurocopter EC155. The bottom line: he is seeking a reasonable level of confidence that he can reduce or manage his exposure to loss. You should look at it as protecting your assets.
The insurance industry should be looked at as more than a mechanism for paying claims or collecting premiums. It is a means--through analysis of compiled statistics, historical values and assessed risks--of benchmarking the aviation industry's successes and failures. In trying to minimize the frequency at which they pay claims, insurance companies develop a risk-management program to rate the varied levels of flying experience. You, the insured, should understand how you rate in this process and what it tells you about your chances of having an accident. Clearly history and experience have proven that training offers the best potential for decreasing your chance of an accident.
Take the U.S. Part 121 airline industry. Its pricey aircraft, loaded daily with paying customers, could devastate insurance profits if they were involved in many accidents. But airlines and insurers manage that risk at an acceptable level. They do this in many ways, some of which---like advanced technologies and aircraft design--are very complex. But one of the most important and straightforward is training. Airline pilots train often and hard, a regimen developed over decades that has helped prove not only to the flying public but to insurers that airline flying is the safest way to travel. The airlines' high standards have led insurers to expect more from helicopter operations.
In particular, the helicopter industry needs more mission-specific training covering the variety of operations rotorcraft perform as well as the conditions and environments in which they will perform them. Such training has proved its worth with airlines and corporate aviation.
Rotary-wing pilots need to know much more than what buttons to push or how to autorotate. Versatility is what makes helicopters unique and valuable. Unlike corporate jet or airline pilots who fly fairly regular routes or missions, helicopter pilots can find themselves in an emergency medical service (EMS) operation one day and on wire patrol the next. Insurers don't recommend that operators have such diverse mission profiles, but it does happen. Also unlike their corporate or airline counterparts, helicopter pilots that change jobs can find themselves doing very different things than they did for their previous employers. Since helicopters and their pilots are so versatile, training should also be versatile.
A key challenge is that there are not enough full-motion simulators for all the different helicopters types flying. Simulators give pilots real-world experience with emergencies that can't be practiced safely in real aircraft. But many helicopter pilots can't train in them- because they don't exist.
Some operators face unique environmental conditions that challenge their ability to fly safely. Offshore ops at low levels day and night in changing weather and EMS missions to unfamiliar landing zones are just two examples. Pilots for these operators need training that matches those conditions. Only with such training can these pilots gain the wisdom and aptitude to properly and correctly make the decisions on which safe operations depend.
This is more that just a matter of crew resource management. It involves the real-time ability of pilots to understand the environment in which they are operating and the mission they are conducting. Such training would include having pilots understand their ego and how it affects their decisions. This is essential if a pilot is to acknowledge that his previous decisions may have been flawed and act to correct them to bring the flight to safe conclusion, even if that means terminating the mission without completing the job. Such training should include an operator's management team, which needs to support a pilot in this process. Training is an important element in building and maintaining a safe operation, and providing it is the responsibility of all of us.
President of Addison, Texas-based Aero Insurance, Larry Mattiello also is a member of the Helicopter Assn. International's safety committee.