Safety Watch

By Keith Cianfrani | March 1, 2009
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Pilot Proficiency- Be Prepared

How prepared are we as pilots to successfully handle in-flight emergencies as we all saw on Jan. 15, 2009 with US Air flight 1549 bound for Charlotte, N.C. that unexpectedly landed in the Hudson River? The crew of that flight knew how their day began, but not how it was going to end. This airborne emergency ended with favorable results due to good pilot training, experience and a little luck. As helicopter pilots, we must always have situational awareness, always have a plan and not rely on luck if something should go wrong.

Would you be able to successfully handle an emergency with a calm "presence of mind" and the knowledge to perform the correct actions? Would events like this have ended as it did without the fine training of former military pilots flying commercial aircraft? Maybe, but with more and more pilots choosing to train with private instructors and private flight schools, is the commercial aviation field losing the experienced pilots that we once had?


Military flight training, no matter what branch of the service, has always produced the most proficient aviators. Along with this fine training, the experience these pilots gain prior to entering the civilian industry provides commercial operators with skilled and seasoned professional pilots.

One of the big problems in the civilian aviation industry is low-time pilots accepting low paying flying positions just to build time. This not only lowers the salary rate in the industry but also is very dangerous. These low-time pilots may meet the minimum hourly requirement as set by the insurance carriers, but do they really have the experience, the training, the professional demeanor in the cockpit that we desire? This hurts the industry as a whole.

During my 25 years of professional flying, I experienced two engine failures, two complete hydraulic failures and a copilot who suffered a heart attack while at the controls in IMC conditions. Did I remain calm? You bet. All of these incidents had favorable results because military pilots are trained to deal with emergencies and we train to standards.

Standardization and consistency is what matters. We are talking about a minimum of 250 flight hours of training with 25 or more takeoffs and landings, and every flight involving such tasks as stuck pedal left, stuck pedal right, hydraulics off, etc. This occurs every day just to meet requirements for graduation of flight school. We are talking about consistent ground school instruction. We are talking about living and breathing aviation for more than a year. This just does not occur with civilian flight training. Even if pilots elect to attend a flight training program, they do not get the experience the military gives after receiving their wings.

What about the law enforcement community? Many law enforcement aviation programs produce their own pilots by sending them to training with the goal to just reach the required minimum time to get a commercial rotary wing license. After that, they then send their pilots off to fly fixed wing, five hours a day, straight and level with one take off and one landing just to accumulate more time. Many programs have the pilot-in-training occupy the copilot position just to log time. Most do not receive enough emergency situational training nor do they receive the correct amount of training flying in various classes of airspace. I have seen some pilots fly 50 or more miles out of their way to avoid talking to ATC. Are these pilots really gaining the related aviation experience needed to be proficient?

Pilot proficiency also means that we start this process the moment we are assigned a flight. This includes the decision-making process in the preflight planning phase. When I was flying for Part 135 and Part 91 helicopter operators in and around the New York City area, I was always aware of my landing areas, and normally would chose a route of flight that was near water in case of a forced landing. This was also the same when I was flying for news gathering operators in the Philadelphia area. The majority of flying in this business is hovering. I always would give myself a way out if an emergency would happen. I would always have a forced landing area chosen whenever I was at a hover over a news scene. I would hover at an altitude of at least 1,000 feet AGL. It was during this profile when I experienced two complete hydraulic failures in an AS350 aircraft. Both resulted in a run on landing with no injuries and no damage to the aircraft.

Maintaining pilot proficiency will help reduce the human factors listed as unsafe aircrew acts. These are considered active conditions and are categorized as skill- based errors involving attention, memory and execution failures; or wrong deliberate responses to an emergency, improper use of flight controls or exceeded ability.

Pilot proficiency applies to all pilots no matter how you received your training. You must always strive to improve your skills and abilities. Pilot proficiency means you never stop learning.

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