This edition of ‘Skids Up’ may be perceived as contentious, and I hope it is! Question procedures when you can. That is how we evolve!
I personally have flown in weather that you would not leave your home in. I’ve crawled to the aircraft, because the wind and snow was so bad. So, what makes me and a SAR (Search and Rescue) crew so different from the rest?
Sadly, it is one word in the dictionary: CREW.
You are not a CREW MEMBER just because you are sitting in a helicopter as part of your job.
There is a sad and often fatal divide in our aviation community; a subtle, but very distinct divide that plagues the HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Services) community daily. It is a common and wholly incorrect and perceived difference between the PIC (Pilot in Command) and the aeromedical crews that can be summed up in two phrases: ´teamwork´ and ´crew resource management´.
Many people miss the point. We are one helicopter – one crew. All working together in unison to achieve the mission objective with the highest level of safety and ultimately deliver advanced medical skills to a patient to save lives. A ‘patient advocate’.
So, what is the difference? Predominantly through a horrendous legacy that we all have to live with, individual characters, lack of education, internal training programs, unit operating procedures, and a failure in the ´just culture´. But, it’s partly due to a failure of the whole team: administration staff, ground support staff, and aircrews. The ‘we have always done it this way‘ is an absolutely unacceptable excuse. Everyone is involved. If ´three to go, one to say no´ is your only risk management strategy, then you need to fix that immediately. On various social media, the mantra is a common phrase utilized, and often in the same sentence, arguments later ensue over why rear crew should be at all interested in weather forecasts, TAFMIS, METAR, or pre-flight walkarounds. “These are the pilot’s job.”
So why this divide and confusion? It doesn’t exist within military aviation. It doesn’t exist in the civilian SAR community.
For example, a commonly discussed topic in the aeromedical community is the benefits and safety of hot versus cold loading/unloading.
What is the actual difference? Time is often quoted. Here in Guatemala, we regularly encounter extremely high ambient air temperatures and high TOT, so shutting down can severely affect patient outcomes due to extended periods of turbine cooling before restart, or the pilot may need to keep the engines running to burn off fuel. There are a multitude of variables.
If you manage the safety area around the aircraft equally the same, whether the rotors are running or stopped, and do it all the time, there is little actual difference. Nominate a crew member to act as ´plane guard´ during every single patient load, hot or cold, and actively supervise non-crew members, manage the scene and your aircraft safely. Ultimately, what does this additional safety training do? It reduces pilot workload! Pilots are amazing, but very human and remarkably busy people.
Enforce sterile cockpit procedures. And aside from where budget is an issue and aircraft fit only allows for a single pilot, why do most crews fly with one of the medical crew in the co-pilot’s seat? Is it for safety purposes?
There is a tendency in the USA, for the ‘most important’ leg of the mission (i.e. with the patient onboard) where everyone sits with the patient. Why change? Why are you sitting front left in the first place?
How can we actively change our procedures to make us safer? It does not have to involve hours sitting in front of very boring PowerPoint lectures. Pilots, actively take your rear crew and show them a basic walkaround. They may notice something from that point that you don’t. Involve them at a level that they understand – Why panel checks are important on start up, for example.
Introduce a flight safety committee in your unit, involve key personnel from every department and discuss flight safety issues; not only in-flight capacity, but also around the base. Is the trash stored too close to the helipad and may become a FOD hazard? Actively encourage an anonymous flight safety reporting system so that anyone can report an issue however trivial it may be, and then provide feedback to the entire team.
There is no ´I´ in ´team´. We all face the same risks.