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Bad Habits are self-induced risks

Safety Check

As many of you will attest, Enstrom builds one of the safest helicopters in the world. And if Chuck Surack has his way that long-standing reputation will only be exacerbated with an improved product line that is second to none. However, Enstrom can only do so much to protect us. Once the airworthiness certificate is issued and the aircraft is released to the new owner it is up to us as the owners and operators to make sure it is operated safely within the published limitations. That includes making good aeronautical decision-making (ADM). A friend of mine who was on the FAA Safety Team once said, “pilots are their own worse enemy when it comes to accidents.” As stated more bluntly, pilot error continues to be the leading cause of helicopter accidents.

Wikipedia defines pilot error as “an accident in which an action of decision by the pilot was the cause or a contributing factor that led to the accident, but also includes the pilot’s failure to make a correct decision or take proper action.” As pilots, we are constantly making decisions that will provide the highest level of safety for everyone onboard. Part of aeronautical decision-making is your ability to reduce any unnecessary risks. Over time aviators will develop habits, some good, some not so good. In this edition of Safety Check let’s look into 5 habits that left unattended pose a self-induced risk.

  1. Tailwind approaches – This is dangerous. Period. When I was the Chief Pilot for a large corporation in Elkhart, IN I was flying a Beechjet 400A. In the limitation section of the aircraft flight manual (AFM), the BE400 had a tailwind limitation component of 10 knots. A lot of jets have published tailwind limitation components. In helicopters, we do not have a tailwind component limitation. If we did, it would be ZERO! One of the quickest ways to fail a check ride with me is to attempt an approach with a tailwind. Vortex ring state, formerly known as settling with power, continues to be a leading factor in helicopter accidents. This habit is easily avoidable. If I am less than 30 kt IAS my vertical descent rate better be less than 300 feet per minute. It’s not rocket science.
  2. Impatience/Complacency – More than one study has shown the most dangerous time for a pilot is after they have accumulated about 1,000 hours without any incidents or accidents. Everything has gone smoothly and suddenly without notice, the habit of rushing through a preflight check has become routine. Newly certified pilots certainly have less real-life experience however they are also the ones that take their time and thoroughly complete the checklist. This habit might require more willpower to overcome. If you read the NTSB report on the Gulfstream IV accident that occurred on May 31, 2014, at BED might make you a believer in the checklist again.
  3. Medically fit – Both physically and mentally. During your training days do you remember the acronym, “I’M SAFE”? Illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and emotion. FAR 91.3 states that the pilot in command is directly responsible for the operation of the flight. Colds, allergies, and other common illnesses can cause problems for pilots. From sinus pressure to general malaise, pilots can easily become more of a risk to the flight than an asset.
  4. Habitual Noncompliance – Several theories have been suggested to explain why pilots disregard required procedures, the NTSB report said citing “personality characteristics, culture (professional, company and crew) goal conflicts, and resource constraints.” This type of habit tends to ignore and violate regulations, break the rules and not follow proper procedures. I’ve seen this kind of pilot many times. “Don’t tell me what do to,” an anti-authority pilot will say as they proceed to ignore directions, instructions, and advice.
  5. Distractions – I think as helicopter pilots we are more prone to distractions in the cockpit than our counterparts in the jet world. The policy in the jet was a sterile cockpit below 10,000 ft. Easy enough. However, we don’t have that luxury in the helicopter. A good example would be a flight that occurred last fall in our AW109SP. I was flying 5 executives conducting an aerial tour of commercial real estate in the Indianapolis area. The lead passenger was talking non-stop over the intercom system as he described the commercial building that bordered the Indianapolis International Airport. In the meantime, IND ATC Tower was providing me hold short instructions for crossing traffic departing off of RWY 05R. And then a second passenger interrupted the lead passenger with, “hey Randy, can you hover here for a moment so I can get a photo?” The distractions were almost overwhelming and I ended up isolating all of them through the audio panel. Another distraction that can easily turn into a bad habit is the use of your cell phone to text, email, or whatever. At our low cruising altitudes, it seems we are always within cellular reception. As of 2022, texting and driving are illegal in 48 states. Don’t let this habit turn into a distraction.

Good aeronautical decision-making begins with mitigating as much risk as possible. Start by recognizing what those risks are for that particular flight, i.e. adverse weather conditions, confined landing zone, night operations, etc. Then consider, what are the self-induced risks, aka bad habits that can be eliminated. Turn bad habits into good habits and fly safely.

Fly safe

Randy Sharkey

Randy is a dual rated Airline Transport Pilot with 13,000 flight hours in airplanes and helicopters. He has type ratings in the BE400 and CE500. Randy has been a rotorcraft Designated Pilot Examiner representing the Grand Rapids FSDO since 2014. Currently he works for Sweet Helicopters, a northern Indiana Part 135 air carrier operator and serves as the Airport Manager of the Goshen Municipal Airport.

About Enstrom Helicopter

From Rudy Enstrom’s early designs in 1943 to initial testing in a Michigan Quarry in 1957 to aircraft operating on six continents, Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has maintained a reputation for safety, value and performance. Based in Menominee, Michigan and proudly made in the United States, Enstrom has a rich history for design innovation. The goal is to provide helicopters to the customer’s exact specification and deliver support and maintenance worldwide.