January 25th, 2015
Total Hours: 153.5
This week I attended the Robinson Safety Course at the factory in Los Angeles, California. The safety course is required for anyone who wants to instruct in Robinson helicopters, but it would be well worth the time for anybody who flies a Robinson, and I would even say anyone who flies helicopters could benefit. The course takes place over three and a half days and includes a factory tour and an hour of flight instruction in addition to the lectures. I was very impressed with the quality of information given and the course overall. I’ll try and recap some of my personal highlights here.
The first day started with a short talk by Kurt Robinson. He recently took over the company from his father (and founder) Frank Robinson. His message would be repeated heavily throughout the course. It was very simple. As pilots we are the ones most likely to cause accidents. Every pilot has heard it, and by now most of the public has too, pilot error is the leading cause of accidents. Period. And all of this pilot error can be summed up with two words, “poor judgment.” Kurt told a story that is indicative of this. He was ferrying a R44 with the (at the time) new fuel bladders on a route he had travelled many times before. The fuel bladders reduce the fuel capacity by about 15 minutes. Having flown the route so many times he already knew where he wanted to stop for fuel. On one of the legs he realized he would just barely make it to the next stop. As he continued he saw that the margin was getting tighter and tighter with each passing moment. Within ten miles of the airport he realized he probably would not make it. He started to prepare for a forced landing if the engine ran out of fuel. The low fuel caution light on the helicopter signals that there is approximately five minutes of fuel left and the emergency procedure for this condition is to land immediately. And yet he still hesitated when the light came on. Still hoped he would make it to his destination. But then he snapped out of it. Moments later he was landing the helicopter on the side of the road just miles short of the airport.
This story is a powerful reminder of how we are often our own worst enemies. Helicopters have the wonderful ability to land almost anywhere and yet so many pilots continue to fly them right into otherwise preventable accidents. It takes very little effort to break the accident chain, all you have to do is land the helicopter, and yet that decision seems to be one of the hardest to make. The accident chain and the way accidents occur are by no means unique to helicopters. Throughout years of climbing and working in construction I have spent a lot of time learning about accidents and they all seem to have one thing in common, poor judgment. The main difference is that there is very little margin for error in aviation. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to recognize our own poor judgment. On our way to an accident it seems that the further down the path we go the more clouded our judgment becomes. At the safety course they made one definitive recommendation to help handle this situation. Admit that we are overconfident. We all have trouble believing it could happen to us, but this is the first step toward awareness and possible prevention.
After drilling us with the fact that we are the ones most likely to cause an accident we moved on to what types of accidents are most common. They like to say that there are no new accidents and the statistics certainly back this up. Robinson has done an admirable job of keeping safety statistics for three decades now and the top two remain wire strikes and weather. How can weather be pilot error you ask? Because weather rarely occurs out of nowhere, especially where helicopters fly. Sadly the majority of weather incidents and accidents occur because pilots choose to fly even though the conditions are poor. Inadvertent IMC, simply defined as accidently flying into a cloud, is one of the biggest killers of helicopter crews. These accidents could be prevented by earlier recognition of deteriorating conditions or choosing not to fly at all. Wire strikes are much tougher to handle. Education, training, and vigilance when identifying wires are about the only tools we have.
Next comes the most interesting thing I learned at the Robinson course. While weather and wires are the leading cause of fatal accidents there is a significantly higher rate of non-fatal accidents caused by one simple maneuver, the autorotation. I’ve written about autos many times already and any helicopter pilot out there knows just how much we train autorotations. Yet they are the number one cause of non-fatal accidents in training helicopters and they are only used in three instances; loss of engine power, engine fire, and tail rotor or drivetrain failure. Where do you think these three incidents rank on the list of fatal accidents? They aren’t even on the list!! To break this down another way, we spend a significant amount of time exposing ourselves to the highest risk of non-fatal accidents preparing for the least common fatal accidents. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train for forced landings, that would be foolish, but it does raise the question “What are we doing to prepare for the things most likely to kill us?”
Robinson has done a lot. That is the purpose behind the safety course after all. To raise awareness about what accidents are most likely to kill. Weather and wires affect every helicopter pilot. Low RPM rotor stall and mast bumping are more specific to Robinson helicopters, but well worth learning about no matter what you fly. As instructors we should recognize that the only way students can develop the skills to handle these situations is through our mentoring. Recognition and recovery from low RPM situations is a mandatory part of training in a Robinson. Discussion of mast bumping causes and recovery is also required. But what about wire strikes and inadvertent IMC? What about developing the muscle memory to handle a low G situation? We need to make an effort to incorporate these scenarios into every flight. To make sure that students are constantly considering the most common causes of helicopter accidents. This was the most important message I took home from the factory course and I look forward to the challenge of incorporating it as a CFI.