As this column is started, news reports of one more fatal EMS helicopter accident are being released, and the early details of yet another tragedy already seem uncomfortably familiar. Many will remember Bill Murray’s 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” which told the story of a comical television weatherman who somehow found himself imprisoned in an odd pattern of time/event repetition, from which he seemed completely unable to escape. The first few times this apparent looping of time happened, he was amused, but as more and more iterations of the same scenario began to repeat, he became increasingly frustrated and, eventually, infuriated to the point of near madness. He began to attempt changes in his own behavior, trying to derail the exasperating sequence repeats. The first variations in his own behavior were subtle, but they became more and more exaggerated and outrageous as he continued to find that he could not break up the pattern of repeating history.
Reports of this most recent accident, containing details which seem to describe yet another EMS flight as having unwisely pushed into deteriorating weather, make it impossible to avoid recognizing a feeling exactly like the vexing misery which accompanied watching the unforgettable Groundhog Day movie, except that the helicopter mishap, and its implications of real human loss, cannot be made to disappear from consciousness by walking out of a theater. During the “developmental” period of civilian EMS helicopter operations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when operators initially began to explore emergency medical transportation as a volume market, a negative aviation scenario soon became familiar to those involved. It arose chiefly as a result of the standard mission order of the day, which placed the aviation resource in the highly stressed position of accepting responsibility for a mission perceived as categorically essential, and the perception of this mission criticality translated into pilots and crews interpreting that they HAD to proceed with moving crucially distressed patients to needed destinations, No Matter What. Visualizing the downside of this approach does not require much imagination. Pilots accustomed to VFR-referenced helicopter management shouldered what they saw as their role in the activity by pressing on, 24/7, whatever obstacles might loom.
The public perception and actual operational reality of poor safety performance has been a periodically recurring problem to EMS operations ever since those early days. Many fixes to variously defined causes of safety problems have been suggested and tried along the way, to include establishing standardized inadvertent IFR training, correcting circumstances thought to produce pilot fatigue, utilizing multi-engine helicopter designs, developing elaborate CRM cultures, and adoption of elaborate safety management programs. Notable recent campaigns aimed at correcting safety woes have hoped to take advantage of speculative technological silver bullet fixes like terrain avoidance instrumentation and night vision enhancement equipment, but I’m convinced that the true resolution to our safety quandary is much lower tech.
Having operated EMS programs around major metropolitan areas for nearly three decades, I’ve found that the secret to safety success lies almost wholly within the very specific challenge of acquiring and utilizing superior pilots. No other element in mission accommodation is as powerfully leveraged. I’ve selected, hired and trained many EMS pilots over the years, and I’m compelled to report that my ratios of candidate success are probably not much better than industry averages. But at this point in seniority I can positively identify a proven roster of demonstrably reliable performers, proficient in competently executing aviation tasks, but, more importantly, able to make effective strategic operational decisions and accomplished at arranging that their crews and their user public are supportive of those decisions, even when those decisions might seem to disappoint immediate mission objectives. Predicting which candidates will become reliably safe can never be completely accomplished until performance in the field is demonstrated over time, because being a safe and effective resource in the community over the long term, and not a flashing hero at risk of expiring during a single mission, demands a very complex combination of qualities and skills that transcend aviation and bleed over into personal conduct and human leadership aptitudes. The EMS pilot must understand fully that the superior pilot is one who uses his superior judgment so that he will not have to use his superior skill.
It could be that our most recent accident, believed at this hour to have occurred within the classically familiar weather deterioration scenario, will be found to have been caused by something completely unexpected, like a catastrophic systems failure, or a pilot somehow distracted by too much available technology. But it’s statistically far more likely that the mishap will turn out to have been just another Groundhog Day.
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