Okay, so the title of this story gave it away—the correct answer is: What is PHI, Inc? While being number three in total flight hours behind the world’s two largest air forces is impressive, the truly amazing thing is that PHI has accumulated all those hours in just 63 years of commercial operations. The two military operators have had quite a head start and just a few more aircraft.
The company’s nearly 11 million hours all started on Feb. 21, 1949, when Louisiana-based Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. formed to provide aviation support services to the then fledgling oil and gas industry with just three Bell model 47 helicopters, $100,000 in capital and seven employees.
But even as those first few hours on the Bells began to add up, the company’s foundation was already established on a strong commitment to safety, quality and reliable customer service. After 63 years of operation around the world, other than having about 247 more aircraft and thousands more employees, not much has changed in that regard—except the name.
As Robert Bouillion, PHI’s Director of health, safety, environment and quality explained it, Petroleum Helicopters changed its name to PHI, Inc., in 2006 to better reflect the operation’s increasingly diverse business activities.
Today PHI provides safe and reliable transportation of personnel and equipment to offshore platforms for operators engaged in the offshore oil and gas and offshore mining industries, as well as air medical services.
“PHI and its subsidiary, PHI Air Medical, transport more than 1.3 million people each year and that includes more than 30,000 medical patients,” Bouillion explained. “We operate an internationally-based fleet of approximately 250 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in all kinds of weather and environments. As a result we are considered to have one of the most experienced operational teams in the world.”
No pun intended, but PHI’s record of safe operations in some of the world’s harshest environments and most challenging conditions doesn’t happen by accident.
“Safety is considered one of our four core competencies that make us who we are,” Bouillion said. “Our safety philosophy is based on the belief that safety must be managed like any other critical aspect of one’s business. And that safety philosophy is backed by an integrated safety management system that focuses on accountability at every level of the organization.”
Moreover, he continued, “our safety philosophy and practices are not only consistent with that of our customers, but fully embraced and supported by them. In many cases their support and expectations have driven the implementation of certain safety initiatives within PHI.”
Bouillion used the company’s recent addition of two initiatives—Destination Zero and Safety Leadership—to illustrate its ongoing efforts to improve overall safety performance.
As he explained it, “Destination Zero” is designed to clearly set expectations regarding incident-free work by empowering PHI employees to take ownership by, “Standing Up, Speaking Out and Taking Action,” in order to eliminate exposure to unnecessary risks and, in doing so, transform the safety culture from one of compliance to one committed to incident-free work. Destination Zero is a key element of the company’s safety management system (SMS).
“In the development of Safety Leadership, PHI recently teamed with Behavioral Science Technology (BST) to provide behavioral-based safety leadership training to our management team,” Bouillion said. “This has helped us provide a clear vision of safety management at each level of the organization and enabled us to strengthen the overall safety management accountability system.”
The helicopter industry has seen the “mission mentality” and the pressure that often comes along with it leading to instances where pilots have “expanded the envelope” to see their mission through. In many cases the results have been life-threatening situations or accidents.
Bouillion said that PHI has taken great care to dramatically expand its training and expectations of crew understanding and authority, as well as create guidelines and procedures that take the “go/no-go” pressure off of the pilots. This is done to keep good pilots from facing bad situations where they often have to make tough decisions.
“Sixty-plus years of operational experience has helped PHI develop standard operating procedures aimed at reducing our risk to acceptable limits,” he said. “Getting the job done or completing the mission is only considered successful if done so safely. It starts with clear expectations explained during pilot and crew training designed to educate and build confidence that our procedures are both effective and aimed at reducing their exposure to unwanted incidents.”
PHI “will not ask its employees to accept risks beyond their comfort zone. In the same respect, we clearly communicate that no one is authorized to deviate from established policies to ‘get the job done,’” Bouillion added. “Beyond training, accountability established through frequent observations, feedback and recognition is an additional driver to operating within established operating guidelines regardless of the situation.”
To give all of its crews an added layer of safety, the company developed an innovative Enhanced Operational Control Program, which is designed to increase managerial oversight and also provide crews with better, more immediate decision-making information for specific situations.
For example, within its Air Medical division, PHI has developed and implemented its Enhanced Operational Control Center (EOCC). Located in Phoenix, Ariz., the facility gives the company’s EMS pilots, up-to-the-minute weather information and real-time satellite tracking.
“Prior to any flight, a PHI Risk Assessment Matrix—a practice adopted by the FAA as an industry standard—is completed by the base pilot in conjunction with the Enhanced Operational Control Supervisor,” Bouillion said. “The EOCS is able to monitor the flight via our satellite positioning system. Should a concern arise, the EOCS can talk to the pilot en route and assist in vectoring them around any hazardous areas.”
After 63 years of global operations, safety is the core of everything PHI does, and it all starts with training. “Besides the technical skills needed to pilot or maintain the aircraft, safety management skills are necessary to identify and manage risks on a daily basis,” Bouillion said. “So we have incorporated safety management system alignment training into all new hire and recurrent training programs.”
The training is heavily focused on safety risk management and safety awareness for both offshore and medical pilots and crews, he added. “PHI’s initial, recurrent and transitional training curricula make extensive use of flight training devices. To meet the demand, we use both our in-house capabilities at our Training Center located at our Lafayette facility, supplemented through Flight Safety.”
Bouillion stated that PHI currently sends more than 200 pilots a year to FSI, which makes them one of the training provider’s largest customers. PHI and Flight Safety’s relationship has grown so strong that FSI recently completed a new, state-of-the-art training center near PHI’s Lafayette headquarters.
Of course, PHI’s in-house training center is nothing to sneeze at. The 13,000-square-foot facility includes several flight-training devices, with many unique to the needs of the air medical crews. All totaled, the PHI training center provides the company’s 620-plus pilots and flight crews over 31,000 training days a year.
“While the current curriculums and hiring requirements for our helicopter and fixed-wing pilots differ, no matter their level or aircraft, every pilot receives the same level of safety training,” Bouillion said. “The training is designed to provide each student with his/her specific role and responsibilities regarding our safety management process, as well as the mandates of Destination Zero.”
Fixed or rotary wing, Bouillion stressed that PHI’s entire fleet is equipped with the most advanced technology available across the industry. “For example, we have equipped 100 percent of our medical helicopter fleet with Pinnacle ANVIS 9 night vision goggles,” or NVGs, he said. “We also are committed to a robust flight data monitoring program. Currently, 30 percent of our fleet is being actively monitored under our Line Activity Monitoring Program or the Aircraft Data Monitoring System.”
Bouillion also stated that PHI uses TCAS, ADS-B, Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS) and other technologies to give pilots the best overall awareness available.
To help give its technicians a head-start on spotting performance issues, the company equips its helicopters with health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS), which is especially beneficial in helping keep its fleet in top mechanical condition.
“PHI’s maintenance program is based on our operational experience and is continually being enhanced to address newly identified risk or ineffective controls,” Bouillion said. “In addition to the FAA and OEM requirements, PHI has incorporated literally thousands of procedures to improve airworthiness, reduce technician exposure to unnecessary risk and improve the efficiency of the entire maintenance program.”
PHI’s maintainers “have been able to take advantage of the extensive analysis of data collected through the Aircraft Data Monitoring System and use such data to take action on minor symptoms long before any OEM limitations are reached,” he added. “Further, PHI’s mechanics are empowered and have the authority to remove an aircraft from service at any given time to ensure airworthiness. Their empowerment to do the right thing is fundamental to our success.”
While training and technology—the “hard” skills—are undeniably critical to safety, recognizing the limitations of established management systems in light of the human interface is not optional. PHI is leading the way to enhancing the human factors or “soft skills” side of piloting and maintaining their fleet.
“In addition to Destination Zero and Behavioral-Based Safety Leadership initiatives, we have begun classifying behavioral factors or ‘casual factors’ associated with preventable occurrences using a system based on Human Factors Analysis and Classification System,” Bouillion said. “By doing this, are working toward a better understanding of the risks and controls that were either absent, ineffective or not complied with. We are convinced this information will benefit our future risk mitigation efforts.”
Bouillion continued that although the impact of cultural and human factors have long been known, organizations too often, shy away from meaningful initiatives. Not because they are difficult to implement, but rather due to the lack of immediate gratification or difficulty in measuring and demonstrating success.”
PHI’s programs “are created to establish both workable and measurable changes to the way we think and act on safety,” Bouillion said. “And the willingness to embrace changes in behaviors are what defines leadership. If we, as an industry, do not accept the challenges of managing Human Factors through cultural changes; we will not achieve our objectives.”
And, in the end, PHI’s comprehensive focus on safety not only makes them a safer provider, but the industry better as a whole.