Saturday, May 29, 2010

Marginal Weather Flying Intro

My post: 178 Seconds to Live covered a brief and unexpected encounter with marginal weather. Flying in marginal weather can both be a lot of fun and very dangerous. I have several Tall Tales I plan to tell involving marginal weather flying. Before I delve off into most of them I need to share some caveats.

I found flying to be an exercise in stacking the deck in your favor. There are no guarantees though other than staying on the ground and never flying. For a pilot to think, "It can't happen to me" is a negative safety attitude. It can and it will regardless of your experience and amount of flight hours if you don't play your hand right and lady luck decides not to smile upon you. I have never strapped a helicopter on without the realization that I might not get to unstrap. As a pilot I like for my mind to go first where my body will follow. In flying and other endeavors I attempt to visualize the full spectrum of possibilities from the absolute worse case to the best case and everything in between. That way, if the worse case attempts to materialize, I'm mentally ready to deal with it which increases my potential for a successful outcome. Aeronautical Decision Making is a broad topic that I won't cover in its entirety, but from knowing the negative safety attitudes to knowing how to consistently determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances all contribute to helping you stack the deck in your favor.

The Vietnam veterans I flew with in Korea taught me how to handle and deal with some pretty exciting and potentially dangerous situations. I have two parallel stories involving a similar mission where in one I felt totally in control and safe throughout the mission although some of the weather we flew through was extremely marginal. In the other there was a brief moment where the curtain could have been drawn and the lights turned out and there would have been nothing I could have done about it. I realized afterward that the situation I placed myself in did not allow for a suitable out, but fortunately lady luck decided to smile on me that day. She could have just as easily said, "See ya kid!"

A suitable out? That is a good thing to have for any situation you place yourself in if you have a choice. If you don't have a choice, then maybe it is best to not put yourself in the situation unless the call of duty gives you no choice. Then you better be able to face the worse case scenario should it decide to call on you.

There is a responsibility a more experienced person has toward a lesser experienced person. The lesser experienced person may observe the more experienced person pull off some seemingly difficult task and think he too can now do it. If everything plays out right, maybe he can... But, the more experienced person may have contingencies and suitable outs available to him that the less experienced person has never considered and wouldn't be prepared to execute should the need arrive. So, the point being, just because you observe or hear a good story doesn't necessarily mean you'll have all the right stuff should you attempt to try the same. Most aviation accidents are attributed to pilot error which usually amounts to poor judgment. I'm going to share what I think are some interesting tall tales regarding flying in marginal weather. This is a disclaimer should you be a pilot or become a pilot that you alone are responsible for the choices you make. Unless you fully know what you are doing and the potential consequences be safe out there! If you have to err, err on the side of safety.

One thing I have learned is that if something is going to go wrong, it will most likely go wrong when you are doing something you have no business doing.

When you are a pilot, people sometimes ask you to do some pretty stupid things. You may be fully capable of doing them, but should you? I have learned to run things through a pretty simple test involving the answer to two easy questions. This test works well for flying and doing other things in life and has served me well since I learned to use them.

The test...
1). If I do the requested thing, I ask myself how would I like sitting across the table from someone explaining why I did it?
Ans. If I wouldn't like explaining why I did something, then I don't do that something so I won't have to explain why.
2). Do I have a legitimate operational necessity for doing the requested thing?
Ans. Many things are a pilot's prerogative that do not require an operational necessity. He can do them if it pleases him/her or he can not do the thing in question if it pleases him/her. Somethings that are on the edge of whether or not you should do them are best filtered through the operational necessity test. That combined with question #1 usually gives you a pretty easy answer as to whether or not you should do something. It is nice when things are so simple to decide.

Not all flying situations are equal...
There is an ethos that goes along with flying, and it changes from company to company, job to job, situation to situation. Something may be completely permissible and acceptable in one while the same behavior could be demonized in another. I finished my flying career doing civilian EMS. EMS stands for Earning Money Sleeping... Naw, that's our inside joke. For those who don't know, it means Emergency Medical Services. Those are the guys that put their lives on the line to help people in their time of greatest need. GollyWood portrays them well with their close to death experiences. I've got some news for you that may seem a little bit cold. A pilot in the HEMS business (HEMS = Helicopter Emergency Medical Services) that gets tagged as a "Rescue Ranger" has a bad rep in the business that no one with any sense respects. A "Rescue Ranger" is someone that will push the envelope to get the job done and "save" the person that needs help no matter what.

Wooded LZ
I called a friend, Jon Molstad, who I had flown with in Alaska that had previously worked HEMS when I knew I was going to get a job doing the same. HEMS seems like a job that can use a pilot who is able to deal competently with poor weather situations. Jon told me, "Dave, if you make a bad decision and bend or break your aircraft or worse hurt or kill yourself and your crew, you just took that aircraft out of service for all the patients that will need it downline from your incident or accident. That aircraft is not there for any one given patient, but for all the patients that will eventually need it. So don't mess it up for any one patient." In other words a good HEMS pilot needs to make good decisions that will allow the majority of patients to utilize the benefit of the service. What does that mean? It doesn't make for good "Gollywood", but when the flight phone rings in the middle of the night the pilot checks weather before accepting or declining the flight. If the weather is questionable, the pilot declines then promptly goes back to sleep to Earn Money Sleeping.

The Coast Guard is a little different than a single pilot VFR only HEMS service. I have never flown for the CG so I can't speak from personal experience, but with the right equipment, training, crew staffing e.g. (dual pilots) etc. capabilities increase. But all that costs extra money and there are still no guarantees, even the Coast Guard can crash.

I thought I'd end this tall tale with a small weather story involving the use of windshield wipers, but I'll let this stand alone as an into to the marginal weather flying stories that will follow.

Enough for today...


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