Helicopters are intended as machines capable of fluidly delivering the full range of their transportation service miracles by spanning both aerial and terrestrial environments.
When these matchlessly flexible aircraft terminate flight at improvised landing sites, however, they may encounter a nearly infinite variety of environmental factors. These are limited only by the scope of conditions and scenarios physically and situationally possible on the surface of the Earth itself.
Considerable work has been accomplished in identifying and planning against hazards statistically common to emergency medical helicopter landing zone environments (as one specialty category of rotor wing use). But the task of documenting and defending against ALL helicopter operational risk—much in the tradition of undertaking to paint the Golden Gate Bridge—is a job that will never really be finished.
I know of a very unusual landing zone detail surprise, recently encountered within our own EMS operations, that completely defies regular hazard classification. Even in the most final of analyses, it is tough to digest and mitigate.
We were planning a routine pickup of a patient to be transported between hospitals. The designated landing zone of the discharging facility was in an open park area, near ball fields and wide expanses of unobstructed lawn areas. After overflying the site, observing that control personnel were on hand and confirming that bystanders were clear of the prepared helicopter deck, we executed a normal approach to the paved surface.
Most of the action in the park seemed to take an intermission as the helicopter’s presence was sensed. Touchdown was accomplished without complication, as dozens of sets of curious eyes took in the relatively uncommon interruption to orderly recreational activity.
As I slowed the rotor for ground idle engine cooling, and our flight nurse and paramedic scanned the area for encroachment threats, we all noticed a big dog bound from the bed of a pickup truck just pulling into a parking lot about 100 yards away. The dog appeared to have a collar and a leash, but, playfully running and jumping, it left its human supervision far behind. The dog rapidly closed the distance between the truck and our aircraft, now static on deck but with rotors still turning.
We quickly decided to have the crew deploy toward the dog, tasked with blocking the bounding canine, leash flying in the breeze, from approaching the tail rotor. It was clear that the obviously excited dog was attempting its own recreation, but everyone also seemed to realize that it presented a very real hazard to itself and to the scene.
We’ll never know whether the dog’s behavior was driven by the unusual presence of the helicopter or by the body language of those engaged in trying to herd it away from the aircraft. But the interloper changed direction, wildly racing away across a busy roadway, where it was suddenly and very conclusively struck by a large truck.
Back at the helicopter, our shutdown proceeded normally, at least from outward appearances. But we couldn’t avoid noticing that the pickup’s occupants had now reached their pet and were sadly carrying its apparently lifeless body back to their vehicle.
We continued our usual habits of working with the ground ambulance personnel in preparation for patient transport. But the bystanders seemed unable to resume their previously untroubled recreational activities. The big, bounding dog had surprised everyone. The unhappy conclusion to the episode had, without question, affected everyone present. Crowd mood and behavior were clearly disrupted, and we were feeling an undeniably negative effect on our own performance. Even as we initiated takeoff sequences, we noticed that the previously relaxed and happy park visitors had clearly not recovered to normal activity.
This created an impetus for us to review the most important safety lesson of this unusual and somewhat disturbing pressure toward distraction from normal operations. Neutralizing unexpected threats is sometimes required during helicopter activities. But it must be consciously and deliberately confirmed that the requirement for such abnormal workload modification is never permitted to compromise and degrade safe operational discipline.