Editor’s Notebook

By James McKenna | October 1, 2003
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Reader Ray Caryl of Oro Valley, Arizona takes issue with my contention, in August’s Editor’s Notebook, that the fudging of numbers by Washington budgeteers was the shame of the space shuttle Columbia inflight breakup Feb. 1. "The real tragedy," he writes, was "the deaths that resulted in the aftermath from the frantic push to recover" Columbia’s parts for investigators.

With the seven astronauts lost, Mr. Caryl notes, the priority seemed to be to place blame for Columbia’s disintegration. To do that her parts had to be recovered, he says, and helicopters were ordered to expedite their recovery in operations that bordered on reckless.

"From day one, the pilots involved recognized a serious flaw in the way they were being told to fly," he writes, "20 kt. at 20 ft. above the vegetation. A significant amount of that "vegetation" was 100 ft. trees." He argues that this mission profile "put every helicopter out there deep in the shaded area of the height-velocity curve," the combinations of airspeed and altitude at which there is insufficient stored energy to permit a safe autorotational landing."


With 30 helicopters flying 6 hr. a day for more than 30 days, often in that shaded area, he says, the odds favored somebody getting hurt-and someone did. The pilot and a crewmember died after their a Bell 407, operated under contract to the U.S. Forestry Service, crashed March 27 while searching for shuttle debris. Three others on the aircraft suffered serious injuries. The aircraft had been hovering at about 125 ft. agl. over 80-ft.-tall trees when an engine-control problem caused it to lose power. "But a major contributing factor," Mr. Caryl argues, "was the fact that the aircraft was flying very slow just above the trees . . . [The pilot] had absolutely no wiggle room, no place or altitude to maneuver. He was simply going down," resulting in a "totally unnecessary loss of life and equipment . . . looking for parts."

Mr. Caryl’s critique goes to the heart of a matter that aviators must manage every day. That matter is the balance of an operation’s risks and its benefits. Sometimes it is necessary let that balance tip toward the risky side. Next month, for instance, during our annual EMERGENCY RESPONSE 2003 conference in Long Beach, California, we will honor a helicopter crew that braved great risks to save lives. That is the nature of rescue work. But often we tolerate excessive risk for no good reason. Too often, we downright invite it into our lives and operations. That it is a fool who takes on risk unnecessarily is a lesson we in aviation seem compelled to learn over and over.

Some embrace that lession. This month, a guest correspondent discusses helicopter operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the U.S. Army aviation’s approach in confronting Republic Guards and other units in that theater.

As commander of the 101st Airborne Div.’s 101st Aviation Brigade (Attack), Col. Gregory P. Gass is in a unique position to assess those operations, and his is a candid one. He notes that Army aircrews were able to become more confident and successful in part because the division commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Patraeus required that certain "enablers" be available for air elements launching deep attack or reconnaissance missions. These enablers included airborne forward air controllers, close air support aircraft, command-and-control platforms, long-range artillery, unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, and rescue teams on alert.

"This served as a go/no go list for division staff prior to the execution of those missions," Colonel Gass writes. Risk mitigation is what he calls a policy that demanded an answer up front to the questions, "Do our guys have what they need for the mission, and if they get into it, can we get them out?" We would all be well served by applying General Petraeus’ policy to our own missions. It might have saved that Bell 407 crew.

I recently trained as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. The first lesson by the first instructor stressed one point: your primary job in responding to an emergency is to make sure that you and your partners stay safe. They talk of checklists, too, in the emergency response community, and the first item on the primary memory checklist is this: "Is the scene safe?" It should be a go/no go item. If the answer is no, you turn around and wait until it is.

The instructor was a wiry, wizened veteran firefighter with a reputation for beating guys half his age to the tip of the spear (in this case, the nozzle of the main hose line attacking a fire). Still, he told us: "You don’t do the victims any good if you end up a victim yourself."

Aviators and emergency responders have much in common in that regard. Too often they honor that rule in the breach.

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