The term “I call ‘shotgun’” traditionally means that you want to sit in the front next to the driver. Better view, more leg room; It’s simply better than being in the back. Is it the same for a helicopter? The simple answer is NO. Why?
Firstly, we need to look at why the pilot is sat in the right seat. In fixed wing (FW), the Pilot in Command seat is on the left. Why the difference? Here’s a bit of history:
When Igor Sikorsky built the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, the R-4 model, it was intended as a trainer, but it was so underpowered that Sikorsky decided to let the instructor and student share a single collective. The only place to put it then was in the middle between the two seats. Given the coordination and strength required to manipulate an R-4 cyclic for any length of time, the student always flew from the right, as the cyclic control required so much manipulation, it was never let go of. Also, in the old days, you were right-hand dominant only.
As aircraft developed, the second collective was added, so the left seat became the co-pilot or instructor seat. This continued until 1946 when the Bell 47 (featured in the TV series MASH) was introduced with dual collectives.
Forward now to the present day. As a comparison, in Search and Rescue / Military helicopters, the most senior pilot sits on the left, and the PIC is still on the right. The left seat is primarily responsible for overall safety, mission situational awareness, communications, instrumentation management and ‘old hand’ advice where needed.
Now HEMS… Due to budget (usually), there is no co-pilot, and usually there is a medical crew member sat in the left seat. Do not get me wrong – I do not have a problem with that! But, WHAT ARE YOU DOING EXACTLY? Remember the position that you are sat in… Why is that seat there in the first place? The only difference is the cyclic, collective and yaw pedals are removed. Outside of the USA, there are strict requirements laid down on who can sit ‘shotgun’, and extensive training is required. You are basically a pilot who does not know how to physically fly.
At a minimum level, ask yourself, “Can I do this, and am I COMPETENT, CONFIDENT and QUALIFIED?” in these areas:
- Confident and legally licensed to operate an aircraft radio.
- Understand METARs, NOTAMS, TAFMIS and their effect on YOU as a CREW.
- Understand the aircraft you are flying in, its systems and operating limits.
- Understand N1, N2, VnE, TOT, HIGE, HOGE, fuel burn; the ‘Ts & Ps, correct, no warning captions’ checklist call.
- Ability to support the pilot in every decision and action he/she makes without you being able to take control! – Think about sitting in a car as a back-seat passenger. We all have, at some stage, done the ‘phantom brake pedal action’.
Now using our powers of imagination, we are flying – Woohoo!
We are doing a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) approach to a ‘confined space’. We have done a high and low orbit looking for AND discussing the following:
- SIZE – Ideally as big as a football pitch.
- SHAPE – Note the shape (so that as a crew, we are all looking at the same place).
- SURROUNDINGS – No wires, pylons, trees, or buildings (including the approach path and MORE IMPORTANTLY the overshoot options, i.e. where and what direction we can go when it all goes wrong).
- SURFACES – Dry, wet or snow.
- SLOPE – As level as possible.
- WIND – Direction and Strength (‘wind direction’ is the direction that the wind comes from).
Let us put this into context…
This is me sat left seat in an Agusta Westland AW-109 on the ramp with no power and shut down (before you all complain!):
Yes, a lot of the latest helicopters have Multi-Functional Displays (MFD’s), but they ALL display the same information. You need to know your own aircraft. They are all slightly different, which is why pilots and professional rear crew members do ‘conversion courses’ to learn the differences.
So to save me waffling on, if you are sat ‘shotgun’ in the left seat, do you have the knowledge and confidence when one of the gauges goes into the RED? Is it within the aircraft tolerances time-wise? If not, do you have the CONFIDENCE to tell the pilot EXACTLY what the problem is, call an abort (or ‘wave off’) and have the relevant aircraft emergency (non-time critical) page open and ready to go?
How do you learn this? Go to the pilot’s annual/ mandatory ground school and ask questions. Ask yourself, “Are you competent for that left seat position?”