Go or No-go? Advice from JH HEMS pilots

Since the South Carolina HEMS crash, there’s been a pretty good thread on JH started by asking HEMS pilots how many times they’ve picked up to “take a look.” One pilot points out that minimums are when you stop flying, not when you think about going. The first part of this is developing minimums and sticking to them. There are 2 personal minimums worksheets distributed by the FAA and ASF. Unfortunately, they’re designed for plank drivers, waste a lot of space on developing IFR minimums, and don’t offer much guidance on how one should actually go about deciding what his minimums should be. This would be helpful advice. I’ve never flown at night in anything less than CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited), so what should I set my night minimums to? Not having guidance on how to go from conditions you know you can fly in to conditions you haven’t flown in before is how I think most new pilots get into the look-and-see trap.

Another pilot suggests that if it takes more than 5 minutes to make a go/no-go decision, then the decision is not to go. There have been several times that I’ve agonized over whether or not to do a flight, when the answer should have been simple. On my commercial dual cross-country, there was an Airmet Tango overlying my destination. This was a small mountain airport that I’d never been to before (and the instructor, somebody I had never flown with before, had only been there a few times). Should have been an easy decision, but what made it difficult to call was 1) an airport in the same valley was reporting calm winds and seemingly great conditions and 2) another student who was making the same flight as her solo commercial cross-country, was headed out to pre-flight. The second factor was the pressure of the 12-month interview, knowing that the owner wouldn’t be too keen on seeing the helicopter I reserved sitting in the hangar when another student had made the flight just fine. (Ultimately the CP stopped that student from making the flight, but that one’s an instructor now.) The first factor I laugh at now–the reason for the Tango was the turbulent shear zone somewhere that I’d have been flying in to get to those calm surface winds. It should have taken me 0.05 seconds to make that decision.

Students and instructors also need to look at all their flights through cockpit resource management lenses. This is difficult since we establish a cordial relationship with our instructor on the demo flight–the student’s excited and the instructor wants to recruit the student. How’s that going to go if the instructors words are “Clear to taxi, sterile cockpit until we exit the pattern.” Just another one of those conflicts between the sale of flight instruction and the delivery of safe instruction. One thing you can introduce at any time during your training (or instructing relationship) is the concept that the entire crew of the aircraft is part of the decision-making process, whether it’s your 2-pilot R22 or you have a pilot and 2 flight nurses on a EC145. You, as a student, have the obligation to speak up if you are not comfortable with any part of a lesson. You, as the instructor, have the obligation to listen to your crew. In situations where a crew member voiced a concern about the flight, often times others had also had the same concern and were relieved to get it out into the open. If the conditions are bad enough, the pilot may be too focused on keeping the aircraft up to divert his attention to another course of action. Also, as the pilot, realize that while your crew might say “Gee, weather ahead looks like it’s only getting worse” they’re thinking “I was pretty fucking scared 10 minutes ago.”

The last really useful bit of advice off that thread was to use ATC. Safe to say that helicopter pilots talk less to ATC–we don’t fly as far, as high, or on IFR plans as often. One of the drills for plank drivers is, when you are in trouble, Aviate-Navigate-Communicate and the 3 (or 4 or 5) C’s: Confess (you screwed up), Climb, Control the aircraft, and Call ATC. I remember a discussion with my instructor where we questioned this…is climbing going to do us any good? Maybe. Sometimes. At least there are fewer things to hit higher up. One of the JH posters related a story about how he once went IIMC (inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions). He successfully transitioned to instruments, climbed, got directions from ATC, and made it back to the airport safely…only to have his CP threaten to fire him if he ever did that again. That’s the same mentality that had me considering a flight into an Airmet Tango, and it’s unnecessary incentive for anybody who doesn’t want to be crash residue.

Here are links to the personal minimums checklists: PAVE checklist and FAA Personal Minimums.

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