Helicopter & GA Pilots: Plan the flight…fly the plan

by William S Lawrence, Colonel USMC (Ret'd) on November 29, 2010

in General Aviation,Helicopter Safety

I’ve come to believe that most accidents occur when the pilot decides to do something, anything, that was not in the original plan for that flight.  When I think back on the times that I’ve tried hardest to kill myself, it was generally because of that fact.

I remember taking off one day to carry some General somewhere on a VIP flight.  He was delayed, so I had extra time on my hands and decided on the spur of the moment to shoot some autorotations.  I called the tower, was cleared into the pattern and decided to try to be as good as Bruce Prout.  Bruce was a squadron pilot, friend, and one of the best sticks I’ve ever known.  He could shoot an autorotation to a spot from virtually anywhere.  So I entered an auto, saw that I was going to be long and decided to do what I thought Bruce would do.  I honked back on the stick to kill airspeed, which raised the nose, kicked the pedals to put the aircraft out of trim and make it come down a little faster, then tried to recover to the right airspeed/descent rate. 

By the time I figured out that the airspeed wasn’t coming back, I was about 3 seconds from impact.  Fortunately, at this base, the approach end to the runway was 30 feet below runway elevation.  I once again pulled back on the stick and pulled the collective into my armpit to get all of the cushioning I could from the rotor system.  The aircraft bottomed out about 3 feet from the water and recovered to a shaky, but safe landing.  The crew chief had spread-eagled on the cabin deck, sure that we were going to crash.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that I had a full bag of gas, a full crew, and was heavy to be shooting autorotations.  I also hadn’t thought about how long it would take to build my airspeed back after prematurely bleeding it off.  I hadn’t considered the atmospheric conditions.  Trying to fly an unplanned … and unthought … maneuver almost cost me my life and those of my crew.  But for the saving grace of those extra feet of altitude, I would have died.

We say, “Plan the flight, fly the plan.” It’s not just a clever saying; it’s a way to stay safe.  Checklists are excellent and necessary ways to plan the flight.  Develop your own expanded checklists based on incidents that have meaning to you.  Incorporate extra steps that will enhance your situational awareness.  Find ways to refocus on your mission with regularity.  Read articles from those who have done dumb things, survived, and are willing to share their stories.  Learn from others.  The life you save absolutely will be your own—and those on board with you.

Colonel William Lawrence is a retired Marine Corps experimental and engineering test pilot with logged flight time in over 130 different types, models, and series of helicopters, fixed wing, gliders, and other airborne devices.  His interests and experiences have led him to be self-employed in aspects of aircraft design, accident investigation, piloting, mechanical, and aerodynamic consulting, and the representation of various international aviation interests.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

James Crouse November 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Colonel Lawrence has given us solid advice based on a personal experience. Although this post is based on a helicopter flight, its lessons apply to any mode of flight—fixed wing, helicopters, general aviation and commercial aviation. It also applies to the world of maintenance. Use the maintenance instructions and check all applicable supplemental instructions—airworthiness directives, service bulletins, etc.

But it doesn’t stop there. Use your head and your common sense. If something doesn’t seem right, get another opinion. It doesn’t take that long to get the manufacturer or an FAA inspector on the phone.

Importantly, although you should “follow the book,” keep in mind there is a reason for Airworthiness Directives and follow-ups by the manufacturer. Think. Examine. Analyze. Even items certified by the FAA or the manufacturer can be problematic, as was just shown in a matter that involved a tail rotor pedal cover remarkably approved by the FAA on a -337 even though the cover had a built-in restriction.


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