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Rescue pilot helps brong air accidents down

Rescue pilot helps AIRCARE Trust in bringing air accidents down

Rescue Pilot Sue Dinkelacker had to make some fast decisions when, on a night flight, her rescue helicopter hit a tree as it went through hilly terrain en route from Wellington to Masterton Hospital.

Her airmanship was such that everyone on board survived, but she learned some hard lessons that night in January 2003 about how her earlier decisions had contributed to the terrifying accident.

She has put those lessons to good use by passing on her knowledge in the AIRCARE DVD series recently produced by the Aviation Industry Association, Civil Aviation Authority and Accident Compensation Corporation, which are members of the AIRCARE Trust formed in 2001.

Mrs Dinkelacker is helping the industry in its information campaign to reduce accidents among the general aviation (commercial and recreational) sector by 25 percent by 2006. Already the DVDs, plus the widespread industry discussion that led to the making of them, are having a positive impact on the 14,000 professional, commercial and recreational pilots involved in general aviation.

From an average 14 accidents annually in the 1990s, accidents decreased to seven in 2004 and were a similarly low number in 2005 until the November fatal accident involving liquor millionaire Michael Erceg and Dutch businessman Guus Klatte.

Mrs Dinkelacker recalled that her flight started off normally enough.

“I was making a late night flight with a doctor and nurse using our regular route from Wellington to Masterton Hospital across the Tauherenikau Pass,” she said.

“It’s fairly zigzag and I had it programmed into my Global Positioning System. Although I was under the cloud base and had been able to see the ground below me as well as the lights of my destination, I missed one of the turns in the pass and lost my visual reference.

“My options suddenly reduced: continue, attempt to turn in the narrow pass, or use blind flying instruments and climb into the cloud. It was a long time since I had an instrument rating to use these instruments so these were all poor options.

I chose the latter, to climb into cloud, when suddenly my radio altimeter alarm went off. The needle was winding down rapidly from 250 feet. Moments before, I had 1000 feet below me.

“Suddenly the aircraft hit a dead tree. I watched the floor at my feet munch up – right to my shoes, the windshield shattered and one skid and the radio antennas were smashed. I was still flying, but I was still in cloud and the aircraft had slewed 180 degrees and was down to 14 knots.”

Mrs Dinkelacker kept the helicopter flying for another 90 minutes so that her crew could get out safely and emergency services could cut off the craft’s damaged skid at Masterton airfield. She then achieved a safe landing on a bed of tyres. Mrs Dinkelacker was the only person injured in the accident, suffering a hand injury.

The accident taught Mrs Dinkelacker a lesson she will never forget – that pilots need to set themselves some personal safety rules they never breach.

“It’s the decisions you make before you fly that are the most important. Even though my flight was legal if I stayed within the clear visibility area, I had decided to fly despite the cloud base being below the prescribed minimum safe altitude level.

“The accident taught me to pre-plan for finding myself inadvertently in conditions like cloud where you have to use your instrument navigation system.”

Mrs Dinkelacker said the accident made her more aware of her personality traits.

“It’s not just male pilots who can become too goal-oriented. The task of getting a doctor and nurse to that hospital for a patient transfer became too dominant in my thinking.

“Whether it’s flying a rescue helicopter, giving overseas tourists a unique sightseeing experience, or piloting a sky-diving aircraft to provide the punters with an adrenalin fix - the purpose of the flight must never become more important than the safety of the flight.”

Aviation Industry Association Chief Executive Irene King said that knowing how to make good decisions – and how to stick to them – has proven time and again to make the difference between life and death.

“Until recently the average 14 fatal aviation accidents each year saw 26 crew and passengers killed and 27 seriously injured. Even on the ground, the sector experiences surprisingly high levels of personal injury. Back injuries and hearing impairment are far too prevalent in our industry.

“Added to that is the financial loss, not just from damage to aircraft, but through business failure and reputation damage.”

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, the cost to the nation of general aviation accidents is, on average, $62.8 million per year. Total aircraft accident costs are $64.7 million per year.

Another major factor making a difference between life and death is the use of new technology that far surpasses earlier warning and tracking systems.

President of the Aviation Industry Association John Funnell said, “Cost is sometimes cited as a factor in pilots not taking up this technology but it is becoming increasingly cost effective.”

An example is the New Zealand-developed FlySafe technology that Mr Funnell’s helicopter company uses to let him know at any given moment where his pilots and their craft are.

“FlySafe is available at a low cost and vastly improves the ability of pilots and companies to plan flights taking weather conditions and other factors into account,” Mr Funnell said.

Two AIRCARE DVDs in a planned series of nine have been produced so far. The first, Managing Risk in Aviation, was distributed to New Zealand’s general aviation pilots late in 2004. The second, in which Mrs Dinkelacker appears, is An Aviator’s Guide to Good Decision Making which was launched in November 2005.

The DVDs are fronted by aviation personality and former television weatherman Jim Hickey who is the “face” of AIRCARE. Mr Hickey is passionate about safe flying, an attitude that shows through as he conducts his interviews.

Risk is part of everyday life, Mr Funnell said.

“We cannot get rid of risks, but we can make sure that we understand them and that big risks, in particular, are properly controlled. Not to do so invites serious consequences involving personal harm and adverse economic effects.”

Former RNZAF psychologist Keith McGregor said stress made decision making in the air even more difficult.

“The human brain evolved in a terrestrial environment and can only make one or two decisions at a time during a crisis in a high speed aircraft. That’s just a fraction of the in-flight decision making ability of a housefly.”

Mr McGregor said pilots could overcome this problem by programming the brain ahead of each flight with as many decisions as possible to cover every conceivable situation.

“Planning ahead is of major importance in ensuring a safe flight, as is a standard procedure that automatically kicks in when something goes wrong, and a hard and fast rule on when to abort a flight.”

Mr Funnell said standard procedures were an integral part of aviation training and pilots and their employers had a responsibility to make sure they were maintained.

“It is vital that pilots and their companies reinforce these and make them an automatic part of every flight’s programming. The AIRCARE series reminds pilots of these procedures and adds to them with the highly successful techniques that have kept some of New Zealand’s most experienced pilots alive.

“We want pilots to internalise a simple phrase to remind them to always follow a pre-determined safety procedure. That phrase is: ‘Be risk aware and double check’.”


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