Creating SMS Culture at the Pilot Level

 - November 1, 2021, 8:31 AM
The Los Angeles Police Department’s training program is designed to help pilots deal with the risks of patrol missions, often at night, in congested airspace, and in marginal weather.

Much has been written in recent years about establishing a culture of safety within commercial aviation. The FAA’s safety management system (SMS) program emphasizes the systems approach, highlighting risk management, safety reporting channels, and compliance with safety protocols. The SMS concept provides the structure for a consistent, high level of safety for operational environments where the flying is within organized airspace on pre-planned routes, corporate aviation and airlines being the prime examples.

But in some sectors of aviation, operations are just the opposite. Helicopters routinely fly on missions in uncontrolled airspace where the objective is not a destination. It is a purpose, a job, an assignment, an emergency. The management structure for these operations is task-focused, requiring pilots to be highly proficient in flight skills specific to the mission. To assure those skills are properly focused on the task requires that pilot managers be closer to day-to-day operations.

Two such operations offer examples of the unique, close relationship between line pilots and management, supporting the pilots with maximum flexibility along with access to resources on the fly when needed.

SMS and PJ Helicopters

“We have an approved SMS program in place,” said Justin Chaffin, v-p and chief pilot for PJ Helicopters in Red Bluff, California. “Our management team is committed to the practices and protocols that make SMS work. But, we felt that the nature of our business required closer hands-on support for our pilots.

“Our mission profiles demand a lot from our pilots. Most of them are single-pilot, totally visual, and often demand on-the-spot solutions,” he said. PJ’s diverse fleet performs powerline and electric-grid maintenance, fights fires, and supports construction operations. The fleet includes MD500s, Bell 206s, UH-1/205s, and 429, and Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawks.

“Our business is continuously expanding so we’re constantly recruiting pilots,” Chaffin continued. “Our new hires all have strong resumes, but many of them need external load training. So we designed a course using Bell 206s. It can take 10 to 12 hours of practice before our new pilots can stabilize an external load. Once they have the basics they ride along with seasoned utility instructor pilots, learning how to fly external loads. When they complete the process, they start flying on jobs, including power-line construction and maintenance, setting steel structural frames and pouring concrete, and flying buckets of water and fire retardant.

The company trains primarily in the light and medium helicopters at its base, in the aircraft, with initial and recurrent training to FAA Part 135, U.S. Forest Service, and other customer requirements. However, the arrival of the Black Hawk changed all that. 

“When we started the Black Hawk program, we faced a serious challenge,” Chaffin said. “Few of us had experience in such a sophisticated aircraft. We worked with FlightSafety, trained our initial cadre in their Black Hawk simulators, and, over the past five years, established a company knowledge base. We’re now qualified to accomplish much of our training in-house.”

PJ operates 10 Black Hawks, flying with two-pilot crews. Eighteen pilots fly in the Black Hawk fleet. Second-in-command pilots all have type ratings, a standard well above FAA and industry requirements.

“In the Black Hawk program, we found that we needed to work harder to maintain the high level of systems knowledge and flying skills in extreme conditions that the missions demanded of us,” said Chaffin. Much of the construction work Black Hawks perform is in remote mountainous terrain with high winds and density altitudes. The firefighting environment is even harsher, with water and fire-retardant loads almost always at the maximum allowable.

Four of the line pilots are company instructors who also regularly fly working missions. Viewed as peers within the Black Hawk pilot group, instructors work with and fly with line pilots in an easy, informal relationship. If they see something about a line pilot’s flying that should be corrected, they manage it on the spot with a conversation. As well, if a line pilot has a question or concern, they simply address it with an instructor.

PJ is entered its fifth BlackHawk firefighting season with an accident-free record. Chaffin and his management team view their close instructor/line pilot interchange as a major constructive factor. They are working to create a similar culture within the light and medium helicopter pilot and instructor groups.

LAPD’s Safety Challenge

In the U.S. helicopter community, airborne law enforcement is another high-risk endeavor. Flying high-workload patrol missions at low levels at night, often in congested airspace and marginal weather, presents a constant challenge to airborne law enforcement crews. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is a leader in patrol tactics and in deploying aircraft on an ever-increasing spread of missions.

Kevin Gallagher, LAPD’s chief pilot, has led the Air Support Unit’s pursuit of high standards for their pilots, assuring they are trained and ready for whatever mission they are assigned.

LAPD’s eight check pilots care for the 50 pilots who are assigned to patrol shifts 24/7. In each pilot’s 10-hour shift, they are in the air for at least five hours. The Air Support Unit flies more than 18,000 hours annually.

“The majority of our pilots come to us with little or no aviation experience,” Gallagher said, “but with a strong track record in field operations in patrol. Our internal flight school trains them through FAA commercial helicopter certificates, after which we encourage them to continue on to the instrument rating and CFI and instrument instructor certificates before they receive their wings. The next step is to begin flying patrol with an experienced pilot who mentors them through the complexities of law enforcement missions. From then on, as long as they’re in Air Support, they take general proficiency checkrides every quarter.”

The quarterly checkrides provide frequent opportunities for check pilots to work on correcting irregularities or deficiencies while they are still minor issues. As well, according to Gallagher, the more frequent training improves pilots’ performance in emergency procedures, in particular, touchdown autorotations. And their high level of proficiency equips pilots to learn more advanced techniques and procedures, preparing them for the more complex mission assignments they will eventually take on.

The greatest reward, said Gallagher: LAPD has not had a fatal accident in more than 30 years.

The high intensity of helicopter flying requires a more proactive training culture to keep pilots safe. These successes are testament to an important paradigm: proactive interaction between line aircrew and company training departments can improve operations and reduce accidents.