By Nick Bohnstedt, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
“All personnel should continually evaluate the need to use aircraft versus other transportation modes in the accomplishment of any mission. In this case, the AOBD and fire staff received information that the road to the repeater site was blocked by trees and was unpassable by ground vehicle, which informed their decision to utilize a helicopter for the retrieval and relocation of the repeater.” –Incident Report
This excerpt was taken from the recent incident report of a hard landing due to “brownout” conditions encountered by a helicopter while landing at a helispot during a repeater retrieval mission in Northern California.
The report’s 10 pages of information includes: technical lessons on what exactly a “brownout” is (blowing dirt and dust that obstructs the pilot’s view of the landing area); how slope affects the load on the skids of a helicopter; as well as human factors lessons surrounding crew resource management (CRM) and how complacency can affect the outcome of a mission. But of all these, the lesson that stood out to me the most was the informed decision to use a helicopter vs. ground transportation.
Here’s the very first question posed by the Aviation Watchout Situations: “Is This Flight Necessary?” Talk about a head-scratcher!
One could argue that during fire operations, the necessity of assuming the inherent risks of flight is driven by the incident objectives, values at risk, and the time available to accomplish a particular task. On non-fire project work on a local unit other factors such as cost or alternative options might inform this decision. In either case, it is always easier to answer the question of “Is This Flight Necessary” by asking “Was That Flight Necessary” after the mission is complete, albeit reeking of hindsight bias.
“Pilot stated flights into other LZs on the previous day and associated dust levels encountered ‘fooled’ him into thinking environmental conditions (dust levels) in the incident LZ would be the same. Flight crew should always be aware of complacency developing in evaluation and use of landing sites.” -Incident Report
So, let’s say that it’s been determined that a flight is necessary. Hooray! We get to go flying! As a helicopter “person” (I’m a helicopter rappel spotter), I love to fly. Some people are averse to flying for various reasons. I completely understand. In aviation, mistakes can have large consequences and large costs. But when it all comes together, the contracting, the maintenance, the pilot and crew and their relationship, risk management, and accomplishing a meaningful task on time and under budget—it truly is a beautiful thing. However, just like anything else with this same recipe for awesomeness, it can be easy to get comfortable. Especially when you’re consistently winning. That’s when the unexpected can occur.
“HECM stated dozer and vehicle tracks were noted in the LZ during high recon, identifying it as a possible previously used safety zone. On future flights, this could be used as indicator of softer dirt/potential for brownout conditions on landing”.
Returning to informed decisions, as operators, whether in the air or on the ground, it is safe to say that recognition-primed decision making (RPD) is our comfort food. In the RPD model, the decision maker is assumed to generate a possible course of action, compare it to the constraints imposed by the situation, and select the first course of action that is not rejected. Very often, that first course of action that is not rejected is borne from experience.
What ties this model all together and makes it work is a willingness to learn from our experiences–to change our behavior. To take all the goods, bads, uglies, and all their lessons and apply them on the next plan, mission, or decision.
Check out the full incident report on this helicopter hard landing in brownout conditions and grab another “slide for your tray” here: