Commercial, Military, Public Service

Making the Call

By James T. McKenna | September 1, 2008

As I write this, a panel of distinguished judges is reviewing nominations for Rotor & Wing’s Helicopter Heroism Award and other honors. Their recommendations will help the staff of the magazine decide the winners of those awards. We will present the winners at the Search and Rescue Summit 2008 in Reston, Va. on the 18th of this month. (You can learn more about the Summit at

I’ve talked before about how these awards are the most humbling and most rewarding part of my job. They are rewarding because the awards process puts me in the company of individuals who are true heroes, who perform heroic acts as a matter of routine and who consider that just another part of their job. They are humbling because the skill and devotion that every nominated crewmember brings to his or her job can make the job performance of the "average" person seem insignificant.

This year is no exception in that regard. We can honor no more than about four crews this year, having expanded our awards program to add three category awards — for military, public service and private/corporate/commercial operations — as well as the grand prize, our Helicopter Heroism Award. But I can tell you that every single crew or pilot that was nominated is deserving of our respect and admiration, if for no other reason than that, when challenged, they chose to put themselves in harm’s way to save another.


We will introduce all the winners, as well as the judges who helped us select them, in our November issue. You can review all of the nominations yourself, and vote for your favorite, at the Web site above. As you do that, or as you review our printed reports in November, keep in mind a particular question that we asked each judge to consider in evaluating this year’s nominees: Was the risk assumed by the nominated pilot or crew worth taking?

This may be the first time that judges for these awards have been asked to tackle that question. It is clearly a dicey matter.

We didn’t want to put the judges in the position of second-guessing the nominees. We recognize that the nominees were compelled to make decisions in real time and under extreme circumstances, and that they very well may be the only individuals in possession of the information and situational awareness needed to make the calls they did. The circumstances they faced and decisions they made in many cases tested the limits of procedure, skill and courage. They would not have been nominated were it otherwise.

We also recognize that we at R&W hold a potent position when it comes to these awards. I do not boast in saying that; I merely recount the comments I’ve heard many times from winners and nominees alike. The individuals and crews we honor will be held up as models of judgment and skill in the world of helicopter search and rescue.

That being the case, we felt we bear a responsibility to hold up as models those pilots and crewmembers who exhibited not only outstanding skill and courage but sound judgment in accomplishing their rescues.

This has become apparent during the course of the past three years. In that time, we have reported extensively on concerns among some industry leaders about the poor safety record of helicopters in general and their efforts to correct that. In most of the discussions among those leaders and safety specialists, these words recur: aeronautical decision-making. That is a $5 phrase for the straightforward concept of sound judgment in the air.

One accident report or analysis after another highlights the question what a pilot was thinking as he or she moved along the chain of events that led to his accident and why they didn’t take any of several options along the way to break that chain. The helicopter industry has made great strides during the decades in improving structures, engines and dynamic components. Those gains have been achieved throughout the industry and benefit everyone who flies vertically. But we are still challenged in improving the most critical and clearly most effective safety element of a helicopter flight: the mind of the pilot.

Search and rescue operations are far from immune to the practices and pressures that foster poor decision-making. Just in the past few years, R&W honored pilots who flew a highly dangerous mission only because they were ordered to do so by a superior officer. They had looked at the rescue request, the weather, terrain and their aircraft’s performance charts and each pilot concluded the mission was at the distant fringes of their capabilities; they turned the request down, only to have a general tell them they would fly.

That approach may work when the mission succeeds, as theirs did. But we all lose when it launches a mission that fails, not the least the crewmembers who pay with their lives.

The question of risk in rescue missions is far from black and white. We can offer no answer to it, except to state categorically — as reams of accident data will support — that blindly ignoring it will prove lethal. That is true for all helicopter operations, but our pulpit stands in the SAR arena right now.

Our aim in posing the challenge to our judges is to provoke discussion of the question and others that arise around it. Does risk management have a place in SAR operations? The best practices of the U.S. Coast Guard and other premier rescue organizations would seem to argue that it does, but clearly not everyone is convinced of that. Many more skeptics question its place in general helicopter operations.

What form should risk management take? Can it be applied every day by the average pilot? Or are there some circumstances in which it is simply impractical?

We hope that our judging process this year will advance the effort to address those and related questions, and that the search we undertake will lead again to the identification of award winners who are the model helicopter crews.

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