GASCO Hosts Robinson Helicopter Company's Global Safety Webinar
Since its inception, Robinson Helicopter Company has delivered over 13,000 aircraft to customers around the world. Founder Frank Robinson launched the company in 1973, since then thousands of private and commercial pilots have taken to the air in R22, R44, and R66 aircraft. Collectively, Robinson helicopters have amassed over 45 million flight hours as of the end of 2020.
Throughout Robinson Helicopter's 40+ years in business, Frank Robinson always steadfastly maintained a focus on safety. Now retired, he's handed the company's reins to his son Kurt Robinson, also a strong helicopter safety advocate.
Tim Tucker, Robinson Helicopter's Chief Safety Instructor, has conducted hundreds of pilot safety courses at the factory and in 31 countries on 6 continents. Together, these sustained initiatives demonstrate that Robinson Helicopter keeps safety at the forefront of its operations.
Robinson Helicopter Safety Webinar
Sponsored by the United Kingdom's General Aviation Safety Council (GASCO), the spring 2021 webinar was broadcast from the United Kingdom while Robinson Helicopter President Kurt Robinson, along with Chief Safety Instructor Tim Tucker, provided input from the Robinson Helicopter factory in Torrance, California.
For the last year, due to the shutdowns and flying restrictions caused by the COVID pandemic, many pilots were restricted, and many grounded. The focus of the seminar was to address what pilots can do to get current and safely return to the skies.
Summary of Robinson Helicopters' Growth
Kurt Robinson, President of Robinson Helicopter Company, opened the webinar with a warm welcome to everyone. He briefly summarized Robinson Helicopter's global reach and acknowledged the United Kingdom's helicopter pilots' achievements.
Next, Kurt Robinson emphasized that Robinson Helicopter's goal was to make flying helicopters easier. He noted that most of the Robinson's engineers are pilots who love to fly and are always looking to improve the flying experience.
In addition, Kurt Robinson noted that many webinar attendees have provided input about potential improvements or advancements to the company's products and processes. In many cases, Robinson Helicopter acted on those suggestions. In fact, Robinson expressed satisfaction at the many advancements the company has made to its aircraft over the years.
Helicopter Accident Trends and Analysis
Next, Kurt Robinson acknowledged that safety issues will always be prevalent but as helicopters become easier and more reliable this should also making flying safer.
Interestingly, Robinson commented that safety is essentially a function of both the aircraft and the pilot: "And the one thing that I can absolutely say is that safety itself is really a partnership between the aircraft and the pilot, okay? You can't make a safe aircraft without having a safe pilot."
NTSB Helicopter Accident Trends
Kurt Robinson explained that he and Robinson Helicopter's engineers thoroughly and consistently examine helicopter accident rates. While they are naturally focused on United States-based data, they also study reports on global accident rates.
Per the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data, almost 90% of United States accidents result from pilot error. In other words, engine problems, mechanical failures, and maintenance problems were all ruled out. For reference, the NTSB has maintained complete accident report data for the past 25 to 30 years.
Independent Accident Analysis Report
In the United Kingdom, an independent analyst also studied global helicopter accident rates. He examined 40 years of data on common accident factors, allowing one dominant factor for each accident. The analyst found that all accidents involved human factors. Following is a summary of his findings.
#1: Pilot's loss of control
#2: Mechanical failures (drastically reduced with modern designs)
#3: Collision with objects on the ground
While acknowledging the gravity of the accident trends, Kurt Robinson pointed out that the solutions would likely come from the helicopter pilots themselves.
He said, "We can make changes or correct our own behaviors and learn the nuances and things we need to pay attention to. We can all be better pilots, and we can actually reduce the accident rate."
Knowledge and Proficiency are Key
To improve helicopter flight safety, pilots must cultivate aircraft and technical knowledge and maintain the proficiency of their skills. Although completing the initial training is important, staying updated and current is essential to pilot safety.
To that end, Robinson recommended that pilots visit the Robinson Helicopter website for complete (and free) access to all company-issued publications. First, the Publications tab provides quick access to the Pilot Operating Handbooks. In addition, viewers can easily review the maintenance manuals, user guides, and parts catalogs for the Robinson R22, R44, and R66 aircraft.
Robinson also noted that the online reference materials contain the most current version of each publication. For example, if Robinson Helicopter's engineering department has made updates to a manual within the past 24 to 48 hours, the online version will contain those revisions.
Training Tab Documentation
Next, Kurt Robinson recommended that pilots make regular visits to the Robinson Helicopter website's Training tab. This portal contains the Flight Training Guide, the Robinson Helicopter safety videos, and other specialized video presentations.
The Training tab also contains information on Robinson Helicopter's Safety Course and Maintenance Course. Robinson expressed optimism that as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, pilots and maintenance technicians from around the world will again be able to attend the in-person factory courses.
Finally, Kurt Robinson referenced Robinson Helicopter's free electronic subscription service. Pilots also have access to a paid paper-based subscription service that provides regular updates to the company's manuals and guides.
Today, Robinson Helicopter provides electronic access to all relevant updates for free. When pilots select any (or all) of the company's aircraft from the menu, they will automatically receive an email about a targeted safety bulletin or safety alert.
In conclusion, Kurt Robinson emphasized that Robinson Helicopter is offering free access to all manuals and updates out of concern for pilots' safety. By making all operational and safety materials easily available for free, Robinson believes that pilots will be more informed and make better decisions.
Advice for Pilots Without Recent Flight Experience
Kurt Robinson presented several recommendations for helicopter pilots who have not recently spent time in an aircraft cockpit. He stressed that the Pilot Operating Handbook contains a wealth of valuable information that will help non-current pilots to refresh their knowledge.
The Safety Tips section contains a list of helicopter do's and don'ts. These "common sense" recommendations apply to flying all brands of helicopters.
Pilot Knowledge and Proficiency
The Pilot Knowledge and Proficiency section discusses the various tasks a pilot will perform during a typical helicopter flight. Each task's discussion includes a list of relevant reference materials.
Pilots should devote regular attention to the Safety Notices, even those that were issued in previous decades. Some notices apply to flights in certain types of terrain, while others discuss night flights or other specific scenarios. Robinson recommended that pilots read all relevant Safety Notices before embarking on a flight that will require that knowledge.
Improving Skills vs Knowledge
Next, Kurt Robinson referenced an ongoing "skills vs knowledge" discussion. He noted that although pilots often talk about improving their flying skills, knowledge and decision-making skills are the most important.
He said, "What is really the most important factor is generally knowledge. It's the decision making, knowing when to land, or when to begin the flight in the first place."
Private vs Commercial Flight
Next, Kurt Robinson discussed the nature of helicopter flights and how the type of flight affects accident rates.
In a brief analysis of serious accidents, Robinson noted that over 30% of fatalities occurred during personal private flights. Before these aircraft left the ground, the pilots had to make their own "go/no go" decisions. Once in the air, they had to decide whether to land in challenging conditions. The accident rates indicate that many of these pilots did not make the right decisions.
In contrast, most commercial helicopter flights operate within a Safety Management System (SMS) framework. In other words, someone has made the decision that the pilot will not fly (or will land) under a specific set of conditions.
Reflecting on this issue, Kurt Robinson urged pilots to remember that each flight is different from the last one. As a result, they should exercise the same due diligence and preparedness every time.
Finally, each pilot should set their own boundaries and should not deviate from them. Robinson said, "So that's something I just want to remind everybody of; set your own limits. Don't let other people tell you what you can and can't do. You decide for yourself, and then please try and stick by those decisions."
Tim Tucker: On the Importance of Aircraft Currency
Tim Tucker, Robinson Helicopter's longtime chief instructor, then noted that he would discuss the importance of maintaining aircraft currency.
Tucker's Vietnam Aircraft Currency Story
To illustrate the importance of aircraft currency, Tim Tucker related a story that unfolded while he was flying helicopters in Vietnam. For perspective, the helicopters had been parked behind revetments (barriers) for protection.
Tucker noted that the barriers (and quite often wind) really impacted the rotor wash, making the takeoff and hover processes tricky undertakings. And although a pilot entered the revetment area in a forward direction, he had to fly backwards to exit the protected area. Despite these challenges, pilots became very skilled at these maneuvers, performing them every day.
However, after Tucker returned from a two-week rest & relaxation trip to Bangkok, his flying skills had become a little rusty. In fact, he almost crashed into the revetment's side on his first mission's departure. His crew chief alerted him with an emphatic "Look out!" message over the intercom.
Returning safely from that mission, Tim Tucker spent about 30 minutes practicing entering and exiting the revetment. He knew that he had begun to lose some of his skills proficiency after just two weeks off, and regaining it was his top priority.
Aircraft Currency Recommendations
Tim Tucker provided several recommendations for pilots who wanted to get current with their specific aircraft. First, they should reread the entire Pilot Operating Handbook at least once each month.
In addition to reviewing the normal procedures, the pilot should closely review the limitations and emergency procedures. He stressed that before the pilot can handle an emergency in the air, he or she must thoroughly understand every aspect of the recommended procedures.
Tucker also emphasized that pilots should regularly review their aircraft's Safety Notices. By doing that, pilots will learn from others' mistakes and hopefully not repeat those errors.
Standard Pre-flight Checklist
Next, Tim Tucker emphasized that a well-crafted pre-flight checklist is the first step to a safe, successful flight. Whether pilots fly frequently or they have not taken to the air in some time, the pre-flight checklist should be non-negotiable. Something that should be added to the pre-flight checklist, according to Tucker, is that the pilot should turn off their mobile phone first and foremost to avoid distractions.
The First Flight After an Inactive Period
When a pilot is preparing to fly after a period of inactivity, they should ideally make that first flight with an instructor. That enables them to focus on normal maneuvers along with emergency procedures that should only be practiced with an instructor aboard.
If no instructor is available, the pilot should use that first flight to get current again. They should not try to accomplish another task (such as photography or a real estate tour) or invite passengers who will serve as a distraction.
For that first flight, Tucker recommends a two-step takeoff. The pilot should be light on the skids, and they should then pause and relax to get everything in balance. They should slowly and smoothly lift into a hover position and then practice precision hovering procedures. The helicopter should always stay within the recommended takeoff profile.
Once airborne, the pilot should focus on maintaining aircraft control. They should also focus on keeping a constant approach angle rather than moving back and forth between steep and shallow approach angles.
Tim Tucker: Flight into IMC Territory
Tim Tucker discussed the topic of flight into "instrument meteorological conditions" (IMC). Alternatively, the topic is called "inadvertent flight into IMC" or "flight into a degraded visual environment." In simple terms, this means that the pilot suddenly finds themselves in the clouds or in otherwise poor weather. This is an extremely dangerous situation that pilots should work to avoid at all costs.
In an airplane, the pilot can implement procedures that help them to gain control of the aircraft and move out of the dangerous situation. However, helicopter flight has an inherent degree of instability, and the aircraft's equipment varies from that of an airplane. In addition, most helicopter pilots do not have the instrument flight training to safely get the aircraft under control.
Avoidance is the Best Strategy
Given the aforementioned variables, avoidance of a dangerous situation is always the best strategy. This course of action involves three key decision points.
First Step: The Takeoff Decision
Tim Tucker strongly recommends that all general aviation helicopter pilots should maintain a set of personal weather minimums that must exist before they take off. Ceiling and visibility are major factors, and common terrain and local weather patterns are also important. The pilot's experience is also a major consideration.
Tucker says that developing the "personal weather minimum" plan with an instructor is the best course of action. The instructor's experience and objectivity enable them to guide the pilot in making this important decision.
Second Step: Enroute Decision Triggers
This stage was previously called "enroute decision points." However, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) recently published a whitepaper on this subject. The document referred to this stage as "enroute decision triggers," which conveys an urgency and need for action.
In a typical pre-flight plan, the pilot should designate specific points on a cross-country route. At those points, the pilot should check the weather and other variables before deciding whether to continue or to "pull the trigger" on the flight. If the pilot makes a "no go" decision, they can land at a predetermined safe landing location.
Airspeed is yet another important decision trigger. When visibility begins to deteriorate, the pilot naturally slows down. When the aircraft's speed is 30 knots under its cruise speed, the pilot should turn around or land at a safe location.
Altitude also plays a major role in the decision-making process. Again, as weather begins to go downhill, the ceilings get progressively lower. Once the ceiling reaches a certain altitude (300 feet for the USHST, for example), the pilot should either turn around or land in a safe spot.
Third Step: "Land the Damn Helicopter"
This bluntly stated instruction is designed to break through the pilot's rationalization that they can handle a potentially dangerous, developing scenario. Rather than playing the odds and hoping for the best, the pilot should quickly find a safe landing spot and plan to return to their home base under safer flying conditions.
Robinson Helicopter, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, and the European Helicopter Safety Team have all produced some excellent safety material and it is recommended by Tim, the Robinson Helicopter Team, and the entire helicopter industry that pilots read through every bit they can. Taken together, these resources are designed to improve pilot safety, and Robinson Helicopter's construction of safer and more reliable aircraft will continue to complement these efforts, facilitating a safer flying experience for every Robinson Helicopter aircraft owner.