Close Call

Part of our management team visited our Heli-base in Albenga Italy awhile back. One of the many positive changes the company has begun includes a near miss report. To pilots, near misses are generally followed by a sharp intake of air and an adrenaline surge. The near miss reports the company has created will hopefully not include many reports of that nature. Our new reports will encompass all work situations and involve everyone on our crew. The purpose is to identify anything from an inadequate step ladder to a flight that could have gone bad. My experience has shown that a reporting system like this is only as effective as the follow up action taken after the report. If a person sends in a near miss report and fails to hear afterward in the form of a call, email or letter apathy sets in quickly.

I have lost count how many times I have heard someone say, “I have been telling them about such and such and nothing happens”

I feel confident that with our company, it is not business as usual. We are making great progress towards operating more safely and effectively. When I was a Chief Pilot, or General Manager of a couple of different helicopter companies the biggest mistake I made concerning employee input was that I often neglected to follow up on good input. Very often an employee’s idea or concern was acted upon or a given all due consideration and discussed at management level. As a manager I did what I thought should be done with the information given but often forgot to update the employee on what was happening with the employee’s concern. To the employee it appeared that nothing was happening. The bigger the company the slower they seem to move. Our company is moving quickly and correctly in my opinion.

Last year I had a near miss of the first kind which I discussed with one of our managers before and quite a bit after the event. The safety manager I talked to the other day listened to my story and correctly analyzed that there was not much more that we could have done to mitigate or eliminate the risk.

I had called in to the office one night last year to identify a dangerous situation that was about to occur on a fire we were working in Kalamata Greece. SKED, our controlling Greek agency had accepted the help of several helicopters from the German and Swiss Air Force. The Germans had Ch-53’s and the Swiss were flying Super Pumas. At first glance they might have appeared to blend well with our SkyCrane, but I thought otherwise.

The fire was in very steep mountainous terrain that would not allow more than one helicopter to operate in the smoky conditions with any degree of safety. The idea of 6 other helicopters being operated on one frequency with three languages being spoken and the occasional English transmission was risky enough. Add to that the fact that what I had seen so far from the out of country helicopters indicated a lack of experience on fires for most of the pilots. One or two of the Swiss pilots seemed to understand the fire game but that still left 4 or 5 others who did not.

Our customer SKED had decided that we would lead 2 or 3 helicopters into the fire showing them where to drop in a daisy chain. The idea was ridiculous and  dangerous under the existing conditions. Fortunately our management backed any decision we would make to provide a safer working environment.

We decided to let the other helicopters work the fire at the ridge tops in the relatively clear air while we would work solo in the canyons to keep the fire from running down hill to the nearby village. Our water source was on the opposite side of the mountain from the other helicopters and we would remain below the ridges in the smoke and keep to ourselves. It was as safe a circumstance as we could fashion and listening to the other helicopters and ground crew conversing in four different languages made us glad to be on our own down in the canyons.

I had told the rest of the flight crew of my intentions for the next drop as we descended down the left flank of the fire into the clear air air of the canyon and our water source. About half way down the flank on the drop we heard the sound of engines and a rotor system. I won’t say what the other pilot said in response to what must have been a very close call. We had not seen the helicopter that must have passed very close over our heads. We considered stopping operations, but instead got on frequency and made a call into the blind making it clear that we were down canyon on our own and did not want to have anymore intruders.

Back at the airport shut down and refueling both of us were discussing what had likely happened when a German BO-105 hover taxied past our helicopter. That was definitely the helicopter we had heard. I made my way over to the  BO- 105 crew as they got out of the helicopter. They went from fluent English speaking to not comprehending when my questions became obvious as to their location on the fire. They had no valid reason to be on the fire other than to photograph their Ch-53’s in action and had ventured down canyon in the smoke to almost no good end.

My safety manager listened to the (albeit late) recounting of the event and mentioned the fact that there was not much more that could have been done to prevent this close call other than refusing to fly on the fire.

He was right. We had provided what we thought was a safe buffer between us and the other less experienced flight crews. You can never account for all the risks and someones unreasonable behavior. It was a close call that we almost never got to report. How close? I don’t want to know.

About Heligypsy

Has it really been forty three years flying helicopters all over the world? I guess its time to share some stories, I hope you enjoy my adventures.
This entry was posted in Flying Stories, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot, Random rantings, World Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Close Call

  1. Rosemarie says:

    Whenever you are travelling through Germany you’re welcome to visit us. Helicopters are our life.

    Best regards from VARIO Helicopter in Germany
    Rosemarie

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