When I first started flying helicopters commercially in about 1975, my boss told me that he could use all the helicopters he could get for about 5 months of the year. After that, he said “I wish you could all go away for about 6 months.” It startled me to realize that I was just another commodity or tool to be used to operate his company. I accept and even appreciate that early lesson in business and I suffer no delusions about my value to any employer these days.
I have nothing to offer but my labor to any employer and my employer owes me nothing more than to compensate me for those labors and provide as safe a work environment as is realistic. We have blurred the lines a little over the years in the employee/employer relationship and while I certainly recognize the benefits of team work and goal setting I remember that team owners fire coaches and players with equal enthusiasm.
I currently have a great job with one of, if not the best helicopter operations in the world. Having worked for too many helicopter operators to list including my own companies I can speak with some authority on company comparisons. Like most companies the down turn in the economy has had its negative effects but all things considered we as a company, are doing well.
I was talking to one of our management folks the other day and mentioned that, while part of our operation is supplying services to resource based industries, we also do a lot of business based on disasters – flood, hurricanes, fires and you name it. I am always careful not to bemoan a slow start to the fire season. Its bad JuJu, Karma or what ever you may believe to wish for something that will occur soon enough.
All this gets me back to what my first employer told me and the problems that arise when I as a pilot, go from slow times to full tilt for about 5 months of the year. My company does particularly well at spreading our business eggs around the globe but I do mostly firefighting for the company and as such I coast for about 4 months, go balls to the wall for 3 months , lay back for a month, coast for 2 months and go full tilt for another 2 months. Sometimes. Some years its more, some years its less.
My company needs me to be able to work the long days and short nights when the need is there. A long day in my line of work is about 15 hours long. Do a week of that and you get to work 105 hours that week. Is it safe to fly on fires for a week putting in 105 hours of duty and perhaps as much as 70 hours of flying ? The fact is, that there is no way of answering that question. There are so many factors that go into a week of firefighting that what can look like a ridiculously tough week may be turn out to be the best week of duty that whole year.
After 34 years of flying helicopters and much of it firefighting I have learned to pace myself, eat properly, drink seldom or in moderation and get rest when ever the circumstance allows. I know myself and that means both my strengths and weaknesses. Can anyone legislate a flight and duty time that works for all circumstances. No, not ever. We do the best we can as pilots, or we should, to be there at a 100% when our employer needs us but our employer has the more difficult task of balancing the need for safety and profit.
A tired pilot makes mistakes but so does a barely current pilot. On a recent week long fire event I mentioned to the crew that morning that we were in the most dangerous phase of our operation. Mop up or wind down. When the risks are high and everyone is fresh we all tend to work at full capacity and ability. When the adrenaline flow has ebbed and we are a bit tired and the duty has become mundane, that is when we are at our greatest risk.
We all agreed and then proceeded to make a small error. No harm done and our senses and focus were back with confirmation proven that we could not tolerate any distraction from the task at hand.
I had flown about 60 hours in the past week and all of it except this mornings efforts were on fairly intense firefighting operations. Could we have lessened our risk by not working a 105 hour work week? Yes. Could the company have provided enough relief crews to support the possibility of a short term fire event ? No.
Can companies afford to crew aircraft for every possibility and still remain competitive? No. My boss was right 34 years ago and not too much has changed in our industry as far as the feast or famine nature of our business.
In the past we have operated three pilot operations for most remote firefighting contracts and if I was to make a suggestion it would be to return to that format. When you work two days on and one off you get a rest day and when the major fire events occur its all hands on deck if possible and the duty goes as well as can be expected.
I have been a chief pilot, general manager, owner and line pilot and it is in that last capacity that I hope to remain for the duration of my career. I don’t envy managers the decisions that they have to make but I am confident that I work for one of the best operated helicopter companies in the world. They will get it right.