Put it down–now!

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Helicopter crash site
Source: ATSB

The Helicopter Association International has good advice for any rotary-wing pilot—if you think you’ve got a problem, land the damn helicopter!

Reading accident reports is one of the less appealing parts of Matt Zuccaro’s job as president of the Helicopter Association International. But one bunch of grim reports gave him insight into a simple way to reduce helicopter crash rates.

‘I was reading accident reports, and started saying “right there, if a landing had been made, the accident would never have happened”. The scary part was, that as I read more reports, for almost every one I could make that statement’, he told Flight Safety Australia.

A precautionary landing can head off many helicopter crashes, Zuccaro says. So why are helicopter pilots so shy about saving their own lives?

‘We go round the world telling people that one of the helicopter’s greatest abilities is how it can land anywhere. We do it on a routine basis: on buildings, on oil rigs, mountain tops, golf courses, in people’s front yards. But when it comes time for us to do it for safety and stop an accident we don’t do it.’

Pilots normally associate precautionary landings with the police turning up, the press asking intrusive questions, their company incurring logistical and legal costs, upset passengers refusing to fly with them again, investigators and regulators requiring an explanation, and peers questioning their abilities.

‘When we asked pilots we came up with a list of things they perceived about precautionary landings and we were able to disprove every one of them. These are urban legends.

‘Number one of these was: if you make a normal precautionary landing rather than have an accident the regulator is not going to take action against you.’

CASA’s rotorcraft flight standards section head, Dale South, confirms this. ‘We would never take action based on a precautionary landing done in good faith so long as it was safely done and did not endanger anybody. We might talk with the pilot about the circumstances that led to the landing but unless there were many rules broken, offering advice would probably be all we’d do.’

Zuccaro concedes that it is better not to get into the situation of requiring a precautionary landing. ‘However, the last time I checked, none of us are perfect’, he says.

Zuccaro says employers are going to prefer that their pilots choose not to have an accident. ‘Also, customers, once educated, support it and understand it. Local police would rather not be the first on the scene of a crash and local media reaction can be influenced through education. We started a campaign and now we’re seeing headlines on local websites that say, “Pilot makes safe decision”.’

Zuccaro says many helicopter accidents have a prelude phase, in which the pilot realises that all is not well. ‘With fuel exhaustion, most pilots are aware of low fuel and the uncertainty of reaching their destination. In weather-related incidents, pilots know they are in less-than-desirable weather conditions, with difficulty in maintaining visual flight rules. Accidents caused by mechanical failures involve alerts from warning systems and abnormal noises or vibrations. In a medical incapacitation or under-the-influence case, the pilot is usually aware of his substandard performance and diminished abilities.’

‘It comes down to a simple message: if in doubt, land the damn helicopter! The public relations people have made me tone it down to “Land and Live”, but the meaning is the same.’

Option one: focus on the situation and its safety concerns, make the precautionary landing, prevent the accident, and have confidence that once you explain your decision, everyone will support your actions.

Option two: don’t make the precautionary landing and instead kill everyone on the aircraft and maybe a few more people on the ground.

Further reading

Australian Transport Safety Bureau report AO-2013-152

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