Cameras in the cockpit don’t just improve the safety of helicopter flight operations, they save money, and occasionally can even save a pilot's job, according to Paul Spring, president of Phoenix Heli-Flight in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Phoenix operates a mixed fleet of Airbus light singles and twins and has had cameras in its cockpits for nearly 10 years as part of its flight data recording systems.
“The environment we work in can go from good to bad in a hurry, but when you know better, you do better,” Spring said. “Cameras should be in the cockpit of every aircraft. Cameras always seem to be a touchy subject for a lot of reasons and there are cases of crews intentionally defeating these devices. But if cameras are operated responsibly, the pilots do not need to fear these recordings. In some cases, cameras validate that crewmembers did nothing wrong during the post-incident investigation. We’ve learned a lot in my company over the last 11 years” that Phoenix has been using aircraft data and cockpit video recorders, Spring said.
He dismisses pilot concerns about privacy. “Who says you have a right to a private work environment in an aircraft? I never guaranteed that when I hired anybody. If you are doing your job correctly, you have nothing to fear from a cockpit recording. To those who say this takes the fun out of flying, I never said this was going to be fun. Our clients come to us looking for safe transportation; they don’t want fun when they walk in the door.”
Spring said the financial cost of installing a system is small, starting at $10,000, considering that a new turbine single starts at $3 million and that damage awards from accident lawsuits can easily top $50 million. According to Spring, the decision to install recorders and cameras comes down to culture and that the two are used in unison. “What kind of organization are you? Are you an organization that lets your pilots do whatever they want, or are you an organization whose aim is to provide safe transportation and continually improve? If you’re the latter, you need to understand what is going on in your organization. Without the data, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Spring said recording flight data helped the company map speed, descent rate, roll rates, approach angles, and G-forces and compile a list of 30 triggers for unsafe or approaching unsafe conditions. For example, below 500 feet agl the maximum approved descent rate is 500 fpm; a low warning triggers at 600 fpm. “If you are doing 800 you are going to get an e-mail and if you are over 1,000 you are going to have a sit down with the chief pilot, the operations manager, and the safety manager to explain why you needed to do that.”
He added that there are missions that necessitate flying outside what are normally considered safe parameters, such as movie and seismic work or firefighting operations and that data recorders and cameras aren’t meant to be applied as blunt instruments to his pilots, but as tools that are part of a just culture environment. Quoting business economics legends Peter Drucker, Spring noted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
“You have to go in there calm, cool, and collected and say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ If you go in looking for blood, you are going to wreck the whole system. My job is to pay for these things [aircraft damage] and not look for revenge, but to look for learnings, especially if the incident or accident wasn’t intentional.”
Spring gave several examples where cockpit cameras have saved his company substantial amounts over the years and/or helped improve the quality of operations. A helicopter with a relatively new engine experienced a torque exceedance. The camera showed the event occurred at 40 knots so no teardown was required. Had the airspeed been 55 knots or greater a teardown would have been mandated, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In another case, an EC130T2 long-lining a 2,300-pound Kubota mini-ho (small bulldozer) prematurely jettisoned the load. The cockpit camera showed that the pilot’s hand was nowhere near the hook release button when the load departed the aircraft. The pilot, who initially thought he would be fired over the incident, kept his job and Phoenix recovered $83,000 from the company that overhauled the hook prior to the accident in an out-of-court settlement.
In yet another incident, a pilot coming off 15 days of firefighting duty spun an aircraft during an engine wash, damaging a ground power cart and breaking some of the helicopter’s windows. The video showed the pilot, who initially blamed the mishap on the helicopter, was on his phone, not wearing a helmet or flight suit, didn’t have his feet on the pedals or hands on the controls at the time of the accident. Several of these conditions were violations of the company’s operating procedures, but Phoenix Heli-Flight also used the video to revise its policies concerning fatigue.
Finally, an EC135 on a medevac mission returned shortly to dispatch when its two-pilot crew said the rotor tach failed. The video showed the rotor tach was never working, the crew breezed by the problem during the takeoff checklist and then took 20 minutes to discover the condition after departure.
Putting cameras in the cockpit and then using the lessons learned from that video also helps Spring pay what he said are some of the lowest hull insurance rates in Canada: 0.5 percent. Cameras also help him safeguard his firm’s most valuable asset—its reputation. “Reputations built over decades can be lost in seconds,” he cautioned, while pilots seem to acclimate to big brother riding along fairly rapidly. “People totally forget the cameras are there,” Spring said. “Except for the guys who decide to tamper with your data. I would terminate someone who played with our equipment.”
He said the company generally keeps this encrypted data and video for up to six months, unless for some reason it is needed longer.