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As many of you know, the United States Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) has a both a vision, “a civil US registered helicopter community with zero fatal accidents,” and a goal to “Reduce the US helicopter 5-year average fatal accident rate to 0.55 (per 100,000 flight hours) by 2025 (5 years).” Over the years the USHST has created and promoted Helicopter Safety Enhancements (HSE) to help operators, pilots, mechanics achieve this goal, and support this vision. Quite a few HSEs have been completed, and I recommend that you take a look and see which of these can help you and your organization be as safe as possible. ( Recently, the USHST shifted gears somewhat and has taken on the project of creating five new HSEs.  

They are:  

  1. Promote conservative go/no-go decision-making (including performance planning) before and during flights. 
  2. Educate about the hazards of low-level operations (includes consideration of wire strike protection devices, hazard detection capability, and emerging technology). Utility wire strikes, tower strikes and other obstacle strikes are a major cause of helicopter accidents. 
  3. Improve risk management of night operations, including factors unique to “dark” night operations. Flying at night increases risks particularly in areas that experience the most accidents, such as loss of control. 
  4. Improve fatigue awareness and promote schedules that allow for adequate rest to prevent fatigue. 
  5. Training on the effects of adverse wind situations, particularly performance issues at low 

You’ll notice the words educate, training, promote and improve used quite a bit. The first two words, educate and training, are active verbs that require you and I to take action (let’s train our folks on hazards and adverse winds). The second two, promote and improve, also require our action, but speak more to our cultures than to specific actions. As the HSEs are completed and you have an opportunity to implement them, hopefully you will train your folks on everything they need to know to help them be as safe as possible. But how are you going use the HSEs to have a positive impact on your safety culture? Culture is tough. Culture is always a challenge.   

From my experience, culture is the most effective safety attribute/enhancement any company can have. A positive, active safety culture will prevent accidents and keep our friends and co-workers alive. But our industry has inherent challenges that can make it difficult to understand what the culture is, and when needed, how to shift it.  

We are: 

  1. Geographically dispersed and diverse 
  2. Performing life-saving missions that are time-critical 
  3. Working unusual hours and shifts – often away from home and family 
  4. Consummate professionals who hold ourselves to amazingly high standards and really hate to not complete a “mission” 
  5. Highly trained with a depth of experience 

We have these various aspects to our jobs that many industries don’t have. And when it comes to culture, there’s a very good chance that the above-listed items have an impact on your culture. Or should I say cultures. Because that is really the theme of this article, geography matters. For many of the helicopter operators out there today, their operations include dozens, if not hundreds of bases scattered across the country. Some companies span the lower 48 and have expanded to Alaska and Hawai’i. Some have international operations that can be in South Africa one day, and Hong Kong the next. Lots going on. So, there’s a pretty good chance that if you are on the senior leadership team for one of these geographically dispersed companies, you have operations that have wildly different cultures and different ways of doing business. Yes, they all have a copy of your General Operations Manual, and you train them each year on policy and procedures. (Let’s hear it for Zoom meetings and Mandatory Policy Bulletins!) They sign the attendance sheets, agree to follow the manual, but do you really know what is happening at 2:00 a.m. when one of your pilots gets called out to an accident scene? Do you?   

I hope you do, and you might think you do, but unless you’ve been out visiting and speaking with your crews, you probably don’t. One of the things I love about our industry is that we attract smart people who are always looking to improve things. I hope that includes you and I. But at a base level, this can introduce interesting variations to how company procedures are followed. If you’d quickly look at the first HSE above, you’ll see we are promoting conservative go/no-go decision making. At first glance it seems pretty straight forward; let’s make sure we know what our aircraft and crews are capable of, and then stay within the envelope. Is it possible that during the rainy season, your crews in Seattle, have a different idea of what “conservative” means compared to the crew sitting in sunny/hot Phoenix? They just might.   

So, buy a globe. Or a map. Or break out your tablet, pull up Google earth, and look at where your bases are located. Have you (or someone on your team) been to ALL of them in the last year? Did you pop in, say hi, and catch your next flight, or did you settle in, buy everyone lunch, and have some real conversations with them? You will not understand what is happening at a particular base unless you go there and hang out. I was always surprised how easily people got used to having management around. It rarely took more than a day to understand what the crews were thinking, what they were unhappy about, and how they followed (or didn’t follow) company procedures. I also bought a lot of dinners. You will always get a certain number of complaints, you’ll get a certain number of suggestions, and, if done right, you’ll get close look at the culture of the base. Those conversations need to include everyone. The pilots and mechanics are important of course, but how about the line personnel and the folks who provide fuel? If you are in the air ambulance business, you absolutely have to interact with the medical crews. Take a look at the buildings, hangar and rooms. I always thought I could tell a lot about an operation by the state of the facility. Is the hangar clean and well lit? Do the crews have adequate rest facilities? Are there piles of old parts stashed in the corner? So many of our operations include 24/7 responses and your employees will judge the whole company on the quality of the crew rest facilities. It’s what they see every day at work.   

I also recommend doing some homework before you go to site. Is there a lot of crew turnover, is this a new operation for the company, is it remote (Prudhoe Bay!) and what is the percentage of flights the crews turn down? This is not intended to be a complete list, but you should have a pretty good idea of what factors might impact the culture of the base before you go. Long-term employees might have a different perception of the company and its expectations than a new-hire. The word conservative, as used in the HSE, might mean something very different to a 15,000-hour pilot who’s been with you for a decade, than to a 2,000-hour pilot who was flying tourists up and down Daytona Beach last summer. You need to know. And you’ll know by talking with them and observing them. Our job is to ensure that the training, education and promotion we do will help everyone understand what “conservative go/no-go decision making” means and what is expected of them. Everyone.   

It’s time to have a clear vision of what your company’s culture is, what it should be, and how it ebbs and flows across the company’s geography. Once you know what you want your culture to be, you must clearly express it to your team, and then go visit them to see if they buy into it. If they don’t you have your work cut out for you. But it’s work that is worth the time and energy and will keep you friends and co-workers alive. I was just kidding about the globe. I’m not really sure where you could buy one today. 

Wayne Fry,  
Former USHST FAA Co-Chairman