Helicopter safety and gangsta-rap

 Some people can give presentations and some can’t.


By common agreement of all I spoke to at the International Helicopter Safety Seminar (IHSS) in Montreal (26-29 Sept), Brig Gen Joseph Smith, US Army, gave the most riveting presentation of all, despite having to compete with  plenty of quality  stuff at this seminal gathering. He is the Director of Army Safety and the commanding general of the US Army Combat Readiness Centre. Maybe his secret delivery ingredient is the same quality that impels ordinary soldiers to launch themselves over the top when the chances of death are high.


Anyway, aside from the style, Smith delivered some facts followed by compelling psychological deductions. US Class A military helicopter accidents (fatal or damage costing more than $1 million) had been reducing all the way to the 1991 Gulf War. Then the figures levelled out for a decade. But after 9/11 they began to rise fast, and by far the majority of the accidents were “non-hostile”, Smith revealed. He delivered this assessment: “We focussed on the enemy and forgot the hazards.” So his team were charged with finding out why this had happened. “We found that 18-24 year-old males who had done a lot of combat thought that safety was a four-letter word…it was ‘something that stops us getting our job done’.” How do you tell war-hyped young men to be sensible about safety without killing the gung-ho spirit that keeps them going?


The answer was “composite safety”, which sounds like a cold shower to gung-ho. But message delivery is the key, and Smith is good at that. “Make the message personal”, he said; “Don’t be risk-averse, but you can manage safety.” Before departure on a mission, argues Smith, the issue is “what’s going to take us out today?” Okay, so it could be an enemy rocket-propelled grenade, but equally it could be a wire-strike. So why let a power cable take you out? “Combat safety is accomplishment of the mission and returning from it,” he explained. The same concept could be applied to a civilian search and rescue or emergency medical support sortie.


Those who do return from missions get a debrief, but in its present form, Smith argues, it is of limited value. He wants – and hopefully will soon get – MFOQA. This is a to be military version of the widely used airline Flight Operations Quality Assurance programme, a system under which a digital flight data recorder (DFDR) records and, when downloaded, highlights operational exceedences and non-ideal performance. MFOQA will allow instant playback on a PC, with an on-screen image of the flight instruments, simulated external view, and voice recordings all time-coordinated. Now THAT’S a debrief, says Smith. It brings to life good or poor crew coordination, target fixation, a hundred other situations that can arise on a mission. Smith compares this to a spoken debrief: “To combat soldiers, words without pictures are just white noise.”


Which brings me to another form of US military psychology. On the first day of  the IHSS, at a seminar headed “safety management tools and training sessions”, the US Marine Corps fronted-up their presentation on risk management with some of the videos the troops get to psych them for war. They sure woke up any of us in danger of nodding off.


In one of them, backgrounded by deafening gangsta-rap, images of Osama bin Laden and his cronies were flashed across the screen repeatedly, synched with the beat of the song, to which the chorus was “let the bodies hit the floor”. As a former UK military man (admittedly of some time ago), I felt a bit uneasy. I remembered the scene from “Apocalypse Now” when the attack helicopter formation swarmed toward the enemy shore with the leader’s microphone switch pressed to transmit Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeyries to his fellow cavalry. Great cinema, but not good for a cool head in the heat of real battle.


This stuff was compelling alright, but does it over-hype soldiers? Is this a part of what makes safety a four-letter word? Like Gen Smith said, those who are to complete their mission and survive it need an element of cool and control as well as the essential adrenaline (and luck). And does hyping of this kind risk creating the trigger-finger itchiness that can increase friendly fire incidents, and lead to a de-humanising of the enemy that makes mistreatment of prisoners-of-war too easy? Better consult a military psychologist, because I don’t know.


In case those at the IHSS thought I was going to forget the civvies; no chance. The civilian helicopter world were there in force, hyped in their own way. It was they, in fact, who had called the IHSS and had recognised that the military would have invaluable experience to bring to the event. When I first learned that it was to happen I thought it must have been an annual event that had formerly passed me by. I was wrong. Although almost all helicopter seminars and conferences have safety as one of their concurrent themes, this was the first global symposium totally dedicated to helicopter safety and nothing else. It was a statement by the industry that the stagnation of helicopter accident rates for about two decades is not good enough at a time when - in all the other aviation sectors - safety is improving. The civvies did not arrive hyped, but they left on a high, having agreed that the helicopter world definitely has the capability to improve its own safety performance from within – by 80% within ten years. What I heard sounded like cool-headed determination, not hot air.



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