So how was your day? Mine was not that great, I spent it reading NTSB helicopter accident reports. I don’t know about you but my level of frustration is at an all-time high.
One thing remains constant, no one has yet invented a new way to crash helicopters. The reports seem to repeat the same contributing/causation factors such as fuel exhaustion, continued flight into marginal weather resulting in inadvertent flight under instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) with subsequent loss of control, and in the minority of accidents, mechanical failures. Of note is a new factor appearing more and more in the accident reports — pilots who are under the influence of either prescription and over the counter medications with no reporting to the FAA.
In many accidents, there is prior knowledge that things are not well. With fuel exhaustion, most pilots are definitely aware that their fuel status is of serious concern resulting in uncertainty of the ability in reaching a fueling point. In weather-related incidents, we continue to see scenarios with pilots continuing on in less-than-desired weather conditions with difficulty maintaining visual flight rules (VFR). With regard to mechanical related situations, the pilot gets alerts from warning systems, and can hear or feel abnormal noises or vibrations. In potential medical incapacitation events, the pilot is aware of their substandard performance and diminished abilities in most cases.
With the above in mind and assuming an acceptable landing site is available, why don’t pilots exercise one of the most valuable capabilities of vertical flight, the ability to land anywhere? We already do this on a routine basis. We land on oil rigs and offshore platforms, at private residences, on corporate campuses, building rooftops, mountaintops and anywhere else we can safely operate.
So why don’t pilots who are faced with challenging environments and situations just land the damn helicopter? In a high percentage of accidents, this simple act would have broken the chain of events and prevented untold accidents.
I once had the unique opportunity to speak to a pilot who had survived such an accident, and queried him regarding his decision-making during this event and the possibility of making a precautionary landing as an option. He indicated he had not given it direct consideration and instead prioritized getting to the intended destination and mission completion.
In the past, he had given more thought to the scrutiny he would face if he did make a precautionary landing. Actually, I was not that surprised by his concerns since, in my early days of flying, I at times pondered the same issues. Luckily, not anymore.
Pilots normally associate precautionary landings with the local police showing up, their company incurring logistical and legal costs as well as being upset with the pilot, angry passengers who might not fly with that pilot or company again, the FAA wanting an explanation so they can start enforcement action, the press asking questions and writing a negative story and the scrutiny of other pilots.
Yes, these are all possibilities, but think about the reality of the situation, the decision-making going on and other options available. Option one: focus on the situation and safety concerns, make the precautionary landing, prevent the accident and have confidence that once you explain your decision making, all those you were concerned about will support your actions. Option two: don’t make the precautionary landing, kill everyone on the aircraft and maybe some on the ground. Call me crazy, but this seems like a no-brainer.