Commercial, Safety

Safety Watch: The Hidden Cost of an Accident

By Brian Swinney | August 1, 2007

I’M AN EMERGENCY MEDICAL service pilot in the Central United States. I have been flying for more than 12 years and have over 3,800 hr of flight time, all but about 80 of them in helicopters. But this is not about my resumé It’s about the training, or lack of it, for EMS pilots.

I came up through the civilian market, which is becoming more common than for pilots to get their experience with the military. Military training is a lot different than its civilian counterpart, with some good qualities and some bad.

I was involved in an accident about three years ago. I was on an EMS mission and flew into weather. In my attempt to exit the squall line, I lost control of the helicopter and nearly ended up inverted. There were a lot of factors that led to this accident. One was that I made a couple of bad decisions. Another was my lack of time in actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). And another was a lack of training from my employer at the time, a major air medical operator.

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What happened between the loss of control and the recovery has been debated. I read an article in Rotor & Wing in which the author mentioned my accident. In the writer’s opinion, I did not know how to interpret my instruments and we crashed. That’s kind of an arrogant position, considering he wasn’t there.

I was there. Just for the record, I made a recovery and had the aircraft under control when we hit the trees. If I had been able to recover 200 ft higher, this accident would have been only an incident. My crew and I walked away from the hard landing. As you know, helicopters don’t fly themselves, nor do they regain control on their own. In EMS accidents involving IMC, one study found, more than three quarters are fatal. After a loss of control due to spatial disorientation, a successful recovery is rare. I lived and I recovered.

After the accident, the company fired me. They said I didn’t follow company procedures. It’s hard to follow any procedures when you’re struggling with an aircraft in horrible weather. The company also failed to mention they did not provide training per their operations manual. We were supposed to get 1 hr of IMC training a quarter. I received 1 hr for the entire year, and I had to push for that. Instrument skills deteriorate with time if not used. That is a fact.

Shortly after I was fired, I received a letter from the FAA stating I needed to do a check ride to keep my certificates. I demonstrated my skills, again, and that was the end of it. But there was a lot more damage done than just to the aircraft.

Pilots are a rare breed. Our skills are tied to our confidence. Without that confidence, we’d better stay on the ground. I took some time off from flying to reflect on my condition. It was tough for me — the nightmares, replaying the accident in my head, the what-ifs, depression from the blow to my confidence. You name it, I went through it.

So how did I get back on the horse? Training.

I needed something you can’t get in civilian helicopters: actual instrument time. I added to my fixed-wing ratings with an instrument rating, and I did a lot of my training in the clouds. I keep my training current on my own and I fly regular instrument approaches to keep the rust off.

I think this is key to what we can do to make our industry safer. We need to get the EMS companies to provide access to fixed-wing aircraft so pilots can get comfortable flying in the clouds. Most civilian helicopter pilots have never been in a cloud, but are expected to perform with little or no training and be safe the first time they find themselves in one. That can’t be done! Providing IMC time in a fixed-wing aircraft would be a cost-effective way for a company to ensure its pilots have the skills and confidence necessary to perform their jobs, even under the worst conditions.

In EMS, we say, "It’s not if, but when you will go IMC." If we know this, we need to be prepared. I don’t rely on my company to provide IMC training. But EMS pilots should be able to rely on employers to do that.

I’m a base safety pilot at the company I work for now. I have a unique perspective on the EMS environment and how to manage its risks. I brief the pilots and make suggestions to them to keep them safe and give them the tools they need to go home after each shift. I also have recommended that they get fixed-wing time and some actual experience in clouds. Instrument training under the hood is nearly worthless without some time in clouds, in my opinion.

We are in a zero-tolerance industry. I would like to help educate my fellow pilots through the lessons of my experience and spare them from suffering a similar experience. I offer a perspective few pilots live to share. In a future article, I will recount my run-in with IMC, the reactions of myself and my aircraft, and the speed at which it all happened. I don’t want that accident to be for nothing. I want others to benefit from my mistakes and learn from the things that were done right. If we save one crew, it would be worth it.

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