June 01, 2012
In today's business aviation world — and that includes civil government operations such as law enforcement — strict safety management is required to balance the risks versus benefits of any tactical operation. The New Mexico State Police (MNSP) aviation section has successfully reformed itself after the loss discussed in this month's column. There are lessons in this story for all operators.
On June 9, 2009, a hiker found herself separated from her boyfriend and lost in the mountains northeast of Santa Fe, near Lake Katherine. She was frightened, cold and knew she could be in serious trouble with night coming. Fortunately, her cell phone could pick up a tower and she was able to dial 911 and reach an NMSP dispatcher. The time was 1646. The hiker was Japanese and had difficulty making herself understood but ultimately was able to describe her plight during a series of calls.
That day an acting lieutenant was commanding the local NMSP district office. He assigned a state police patrol officer to initiate a search and rescue (SAR) effort. The patrol officer, who ultimately rode along as a spotter on the accident flight, was not a pilot nor had he received special training for aircraft missions. Meanwhile, the dispatcher notified the New Mexico Search and Rescue Command. It was 1715 and all SAR gears were turning.
The NMSP acting commander then directed the dispatcher to call the aviation section chief pilot and have him initiate an aerial search for the hiker using the state police Agusta A109E twin-turbine helicopter. (The chief pilot also served as the NMSP public information officer and was the dispatcher's husband.) The aviation section had a full-time helicopter pilot and a part-timer as well, but neither was available for this mission.
The dispatcher told the acting lieutenant that the chief pilot was resting at home after working a full duty day and flying two missions. She suggested that, in accordance with state police policy, they allow the New Mexico Search and Rescue Command to organize a search effort and wait for that organization to request aircraft support. The acting lieutenant insisted that she call the chief pilot right away, because the chief pilot could “go up there and find [the lost hiker] real quick.”
The dispatcher called her husband as requested, and put him on the phone with the shift supervisor at 1756. The shift supervisor asked the chief pilot if he “[felt] like going up again” to search for the hiker. The chief pilot told the supervisor that it was too windy to fly in the high mountains at that time, but he offered to fly the mission the next morning at first light, or during the night using night-vision goggles, if necessary. The shift supervisor said OK, and he explained that there were no roads into the search area. The chief pilot said he understood the situation, but repeated it was too windy to fly the mission. The shift supervisor did not object to the chief pilot's decision, and the two men said goodbye.
At 1800, the chief pilot called the dispatcher back and stated to his wife, “So I take it SAR isn't even asking for me yet.” She told the pilot that the acting lieutenant had asked for aircraft support right away, without receiving a request from a SAR commander. The chief pilot's voice was recorded saying, “Well . . . I checked the wind and . . . I could probably go up and take a look. . . .” The chief pilot then made an unsuccessful call to see if the full-time helicopter pilot was available.
At 1803, the chief pilot called the dispatcher, who asked her husband whether she should just say it was too windy for him to fly the mission. The pilot responded, “Well, no,” and then said he would ask a relative to watch the children so that he could take the mission.