Helicopter Awareness Training

" If you fly in helicopters you deserve this session - excellent for all experience levels."

Clair Israelson, Ops Manager, Northern Escape Heliskiing

In Search of the Perfect Crew

The following collection explores the thinking and behaviour that leads to constant improvement. Safety and efficiency are not destinations - they are a state of mind.

Contact : info@HeliCourse.com

Click to read about the HAT course in Helicopters magazine

Under the Influence

Take a quick look and decide which orange dot is larger?

Once you measure things you know that both orange dots are the same size but look different because of their surroundings.

Helicopter passengers can affect the safety and efficiency of their flight by adjusting the surroundings of the pilot. By focusing on situational awareness and lessening distractions, passengers become crew, making the flight closer to perfect.

What Matters


Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a pretty famous pyramid that illustrates people need to fulfill or satisfy at some level a lower layer of need before moving up to the next.

Take a moment to think about the pilot - the pyramid illustrates an interesting conclusion.

The pilot will need to satisfy the physiological (food, clothing, shelter - defined as "keeping my job and paying the mortgage") before safety. Therefore he might be motivated to do something to please the customer and keep his job at the risk of putting the aircraft in jeopardy.


Knowing this is the case, an active and involved crew will engage with the pilot's decision making to ensure that safety underlies all decisions and gets everyone home to pay the mortgage instead of the hospital and repair bills.

Taking the Time

Every time you go flying it is THE first time you are flying that particular mission. Because something hasn't happened before doesn't mean it won't happen this time.

Having habits that enable you to perform effortlessly take time to build. On the other hand it takes time every time if you don't have a habit. For example, if you take the time to build the habit of always doing up your seatbelt it will never be left hanging out of the machine. But it takes effort and time to build that habit otherwise you will always have to check "Is the seatbelt hanging out of the helicopter?" and chances are you will miss checking one day.

The mark of a professional is the consistent building and use of positive habits. A schmoe says "It can't happen", a joe says "It hasn't happened" while a pro says "It could happen"

Habituation is worry's off switch.


Going Ballistic

To be ballistic means to travel unguided. Fire and forget. If the direction is absolutely perfect or the chosen target is either unspecified or huge and it doesn't matter where things end up, ballistic is a good way to go.

If you are working in a complex, changing or hazardous environment going ballistic provides a less than optimal outcome.

Don't blow things up. Catch the error. Correct the course. Continual feedback helps keep the car on the road and operation on track. Looking in the mirror is not a great way to move forward.

Selective Compliance

Society is becoming driven more and more by rules rather than common sense, some say.

Someone, somewhere screws up. The fix is to make a rule.

"Stop thinking."

"Don't use common sense."

"It is proven that past behaviour causes this problem so just follow the rule."

All these are good points and on the whole create a better operation But....

Too many rules - especially ones that are perceived as stupid or non applicable - can diminish the buy in of crews. Selective compliance happens when the crew start deciding which rules they will follow and which ones they won't.

It is up to those in charge to make sure that not only the rules are being followed but to ensure buy in. They do this through communication and follow up to have the crew understand the value of the rule and to affirm it actually does make sense.

Whadda Ya Mean, "You Don't Know"?

"Can you take this?"

"Is the weather good enough?"

"Can you land there?"

Pilots get asked questions like these all the time and sometimes the answer is "I don't know."

Unlike the airline world, the VFR helicopter industry is regulated but not engineered. Much of the operation is made up as we go along. The information required to take a load, fly to a remote site or land at an unprepared spot is sometimes insufficient to give a definitive answer. The pilot will require more data.

When a pilot says "I don't know." he really means "I need more detail in order to make a decision."

Professional crew understand this language and provide those details proactively by pre-weighing loads, enabling onsite weather reporting (remote cameras, radio communication, etc.) and are aware of helicopter limitations and therefore encourage the pilot to do a detailed reconnaissance of proposed landing zones.

Running out of power because the helicopter got into the downflowing lee slope of a mountain top is rarely a pleasant experience. Be a proactive, professional crew member and ensure your pilot never has to say "I don't know."

Lose The Long Tail Lottery

The long tail - a statistical term referring to the substantial number that can rest under the graph away from the conspicuous and larger section.

While the number of annual helicopter accidents have substantially reduced since the 1960's, the long tail shows little signs of lessening from 1980 and into the future.

"If you keep doing what you have always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got."  W.L. Bateman

If things continue like they have in the past then it is obvious there will be accidents in the future - someone will be a statistic in the long tail lottery.  This is one lottery you don't want to win - become crew and be involved in the safety of your flight. Step on the long tail and lose the lottery.

The Fear Equation

F= k+p

Fear requires knowledge of the threat and a feeling of powerlessness.

They say ignorance is bliss and this is why. The ignorant are unaware of any threat and therefore feel no fear regardless of their power.

Once you become aware of the threat, the only way to deal with the ensuing fear is to educate and empower yourself. Whether it is health, financial or flying there are things you can do but it takes effort and education.

Learn how and then take charge of what you can do. Move beyond the weakness of fear to being the cool, courageous crew that can deal with the situation. Courage, by the way, is not a lack of fear - it is the ability to handle it.

Chronic Unease

A beginner is clueless. An intermediate knows they know enough (sometimes a synonym for "everything"). An expert understands the limits of their knowledge and awareness and therefore maintains a state of chronic unease.

This is a frame of mind that takes little for granted (did we succeed because we were lucky?) and maintains a heightened awareness of the situation looking for signs of deviance (why are things not going according to plan?).

You have this driving down the road.  Your eyes scan the road (unless you are texting) looking for the car at the intersection, the slippery surface and even the speed limit change. The small adjustments of the steering wheel to keep the car on the road are reactions to deviance (fail to adjust and you end up in the ditch).

Chronic unease takes training to learn and energy to do. Crew members help each other to achieve this.

Letter Perfect

T is the perfect letter when it comes to describing the skill set of a good crew member. The vertical line of the T represents in depth knowledge, experience and skill, while the horizontal line shows an awareness of everything else going on in the crew.

Professional crew members work on both aspects of their position, being aware of everyone else and contributing input when they see a need as well as focusing on their own skill.

What Drives the Driver?

Transport Canada says the operation and the safety of the aircraft is the pilot's primary purpose. Has anyone asked the pilot?

No pilot thinks they are unsafe and therefore doesn't focus on what TC thinks. A pilot will worry about his employment though and what it takes to keep it. Job loss is not usually a result of mishandling the aircraft but of mishandling people - probably the customer.

The influence that a customer has on a commercial helicopter pilot is substantial. The pilot must create a situation where both his passenger and his employer are pleased to keep him on. It has been recognized that this causes subtle but very real pressure, that can push the pilot into unwise and possibly unsafe acts.

It takes an active and aware crew to manage this pressure and ensure it does not unduly influence the pilot. Knowing  the helicopter and pilot's limitations, planning ahead, communicating properly and reflecting on their behaviour help crew to create a pressure free flight.

You are a Secret Agent

"Agency" is the ability to make a decision, and to be responsible for the decision you make.

Since there have been armies, society has made an exception for soldiers. A soldier following orders is not a murderer, as he doesn't have agency--society doesn't generally want its soldiers questioning orders from our generals.

But the industrial age has taken this absolution to ever-higher heights. Every worker in every job is given a pass, because he's just doing his job. The cigarette marketer or the foreman in the low-wage sweatshop... they're just doing their jobs.

This free pass is something that makes the industrial economy so attractive to many people. They've been raised to want someone else to be responsible for the what and the how, and they'd just like a job, thanks very much.

Now there's a fork in the road. In one direction lies the opportunity to regain agency, to take responsibility for ever more of our actions and their effects. In the other direction is the race to the bottom, and the dehumanizing process of more compliance, a cog in an uncaring system."

As a crew member you are not a cog. You are an agent with the ability to make a decision, and to be responsible for the decisions you make.

Seth Godin Blog

Fixed or Growth?

Mindset is a simple idea. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.


Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, and they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset...

In the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented. You have to be pretty much flawless. And you have to be flawless right away... After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t...

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

By understanding the value of a growth mindset, a group can work together to constantly improve both the safety and efficiency of the job.

How does your crew look at the world?

Read more: http://mindsetonline.com/

Fault or Failure?

At one point in every man’s life, one encounters a failure or, in most cases, several failures. They may be caused by a situation over which he has no command over, or they may be caused by something that he himself is responsible for, such as a fault. Determining one’s success or failure depends upon how the individual or society as a whole views an action or objective.


This is because man’s behavior is sometimes based on the norms or expectations of society, and any departure from these norms can be labeled as mistakes, errors, or faults which may lead to failure.


“Fault” is synonymous to mistake and error although these words differ in context depending on how they are being applied. A fault may be caused by misjudgment, carelessness, and forgetfulness. When one is at fault, it may be because he is ignorant, not paying attention, or is judging things badly. It is considered a character weakness, a shortcoming, a frailty, or an inadvertent mistake. “Fault” may also refer to a physical or intellectual imperfection, impairment, or defect. Oftentimes it denotes a person’s responsibility for a bad situation or event, a wrongdoing, or failure.


“Failure,” on the other hand, is the condition or state of not being able to meet an intended objective. It is the opposite of success and is dependent on how it is used. A situation may be deemed a failure by one person while it may be viewed a success by another. In life, failures are important to help individuals do better and become successful. Scientists, engineers, programmers, and many other people achieve success through learning from their faults and failures. Failure inspires creativity. Punishing individuals, especially students, harshly for their failures can restrict their creative process and stunt their intellectual and artistic growth. Failures can be bad but they can also be good.


Good failures are the results of making the right decisions but still losing in the end. This may be caused by taking in more work than you can handle or of things and situations that you have no control over. Still it is better than to have never tried at all.

Bad failures are the results of making bad decisions or not making any decisions at all. Failing because you are afraid of taking risks is bad because it does not encourage you to do better. This failure is the result of a fault, a weakness of character that needs to be corrected.


No one can know everything about working around the helicopter and therefore failures in action are likely to occur. The key behaviour is to learn from those failures as repetition of a failure is defined as a fault and a fault is preventable.


Read more: Difference Between Fault and Failure | Difference Between | Fault vs Failure


You are the Best Teacher


We all know the type. They drive a car like it is on autopilot, answering phone calls, rummaging in the glove compartment or eating that delicious fast food. This person ends up having unexplainable incidents and accidents, scrapes, close calls and negative interactions with all the boneheads on the road.


It always seems to be the other guy that is the problem or just bad luck. This person is experiencing but not learning. Being taught to drive or even having driving experience doesn't make one a good driver. It is only by thinking about what has happened, reflecting upon it and using that knowledge that one can improve.


Science has shown one doesn't learn when one is taught. One doesn't learn when one experiences. One does learn from reflecting on one's experience. The act of reflection reinforces the teaching and cements the lesson from the experience within the learner. You teach yourself using your failures to prevent faults.


Using crew debriefs at the end of the day is a powerful method of reflection and can be used to enhance both the safety and efficiency of the operation.




Risk or Uncertainty


We are pretty good at things. So good in fact, that a single error rarely causes a failure. Looking backwards, it is easy to see the chain of events that led to a failure or an accident however looking forward all we can see are the endless strings of possible connections.


Society is proficient at assessing the chance of an error - this is the assessment of risk. For example there is a possibility of one engine failure in 100,000 flight hours*.


Determining the chances of an uncertain event is not possible as the interconnections that lead up to them are almost infinite or at least looking forward, unknowable.


The best defense against uncertainty is action protocols based on planning and experience. For example in finance - never put all your eggs in one basket. In communication the sender ensures the receiver understands the message, in helicopters - no one ever walks toward the tail rotor. These individual actions break the chain of events or connections that could lead to a failure.


Unless one uses reflection and debriefing, you will never know if these defenses have been used or how close the edge of catastrophe that you have stumbled.


Manage both risk and uncertainty with a debrief and crew communication.




Velocity or Acceleration


Much of the time we are fixed on the speed of things, which for dogs and others who live totally in the present, is a good thing. However most of the rest of us need to have an understanding of what is going to happen in the future.


Acceleration is the rate of change of velocity with time. To view the future with some accuracy it is important to be aware of velocity but to focus on acceleration.


For example, a helicopter flying at the edge of its power capability needs airspeed or ground effect to stay airborne.  A snapshot of the airspeed indicator will show the speed however watching the trend of the same instrument will show whether the helicopter is slowing down and will be unable to maintain flight.


In finance we are always told through the disclaimer that past performance does not predict future results. This is especially true if one focuses solely on the velocity of the return whereas an examination of rate of change (acceleration) will give a more accurate foretelling of the future.


Focus on the acceleration or rate of change to make better assessments of the future.


Attentional Blindness


Click this link and watch the video




By concentrating on one aspect of life we generally have to give up paying attention to other things. We usually have a choice - we can focus on one thing and miss the rest or we can generalize, pay attention to the big picture and lose the detail. Concentration is inversely proportional to total awareness.


Being aware of having to pay attention is stressful. Sharing the burden is both efficient and safe.


Working as a crew it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Each crewmember is responsible for a specific aspect of the task and is also trusted to maintain an overall focus of the operation.


For example, X is flying and Y is looking at insect damage of the forest. Upon seeing another aircraft in the area coming from X's blind spot, Y lets X know its position. Simple.


A well functioning crew works on the byline "If you see something, say it."

Walk the Line

Did you hear about the pilot who always flew on the edge of the envelope? His pals called him Stamp.

All activities have a line where crossing it means added risk.

There are three ways to know if you are crossing the line.

Experience, knowledge and crew.

If you have frightened yourself and through the miracle of non-event feedback, nothing happened - you have crossed the line. This experience is used by your brain to warn you. Your stomach gives you an uneasy feeling or butterflies. As in "Uh oh, I have been here before and I didn't like it."

Understand that others have gone before you and recorded their experiences through stories, articles, standard operating procedures, protocols or accident reports. Use this knowledge to understand where the line is. As in "I remember reading about Doofus doing this and it turned out badly."

The crew can assist in recognizing the line by using the two previous methods, experience and knowledge. A simple acknowledgement of the line is usually enough. It can also be the starting point for a discussion on the wisdom of crossing it - much the same as a rumble strip on the side of the road makes the driver aware of the impending ditch.

Stomach as Brain - http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/health/23gut.html?pagewanted=all



Play Defense

Is your crew on the defensive?

James Reason, in his seminal book Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents, defines defensive functions as the following,

Create understanding and awareness of local hazards,

Give clear guidance on how to operate safely,

Provide alarms and warnings when danger is imminent,

Restore the system to a safe state in an off normal situation,

Interpose safety barriers between the hazards and the potential losses,

Contain and eliminate the hazards should they escape this barrier

Provide a means of escape and rescue should hazard containment fail.

It is this multiplicity of defenses that makes complex technological systems proof against single deficiencies.

The helicopter crew fulfills all these functions and provides the operation with a robust resistance to failure.

" Making education and coached development both positive and fun."

Hugh Jones

Near Miss or Near Hit?


 How is this for an incident report?

"A pilot observes a lone female walking on a road and two bears in the immediate vicinity. Pilot contacts manager and a student to assist. It was noticed that the female was intoxicated and had apparently run out of fuel in her vehicle.

Because of the bears it was decided to evacuate the female to the nearest camp.

The female was calm during lift off but when the helicopter was several hundred feet above the ground she suddenly disengaged her seat belt and attempted to get out of the helicopter including trying to kick the door open. The manager managed to grab the seat belt and the female to restrain her form exiting the helicopter. Meanwhile the pilot executed and emergency landing.

Once on the ground the female managed to get away from the manager, exit the helicopter and began running toward the rear of the helicopter. The pilot managed to prevent her from running into the tail rotor. She then ran away from the pilot, picked up some stones and threw them at the pilot and the helicopter. One stone hit the pilot in the back and at least two stones struck and damaged the helicopter including one hitting the main rotor. The female was finally controlled and calmed down.

Damage did not affect the operability or airworthiness of the helicopter or pilot.

The manager accompanied the female to the main road where they met the RCMP who had been called. The occupants actions in all likelihood saved the female from serious injury or death.

Corrective Action Taken: intoxicated persons are not allowed on helicopters."

Gee, good idea in retrospect...

Contact:Tony Walker