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Helicopter pilots and the Art of Diplomacy

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Helicopter pilots and the Art of Diplomacy

Old 10th Jun 2008, 22:11
  #1 (permalink)  
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Knowing When to Die in a Ditch...

The recent AW-139 crash in the Gulf has raised an issue that has long been festering in my rapidly failing mind.
Nowhere do we get taught how to diplomatically deal with difficult people, or get any training on when to make yourself self-employed rather than compromise safety.
I'm sure there are lots of good examples of how to do this - anyone care to share experiences so we can all learn???
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Old 10th Jun 2008, 22:38
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What can you do? Apart from if a pilot is unusually reluctant to make themselves heard as a characteristic (rare when dealing with something in which they are trained and confident anyway), it really is a matter of the realities prevailing.

If that's how it intransigently is out in the Gulf, as acknowledged by several posters, then maybe if people look elsewhere for employment (simplistic I know), then after a lean time, the employers might eventually listen? Or maybe not. Very wealthy and powerful people can sometimes dance only to their own tune. Insurance voided? So what... peanuts. Illegal? ...not in this country if I say not.

From what I've read about this case, maybe the only course of action was for both pilots to give each other the nod and simply climb out without speaking and walk away from the aircraft. No job, but no accident. Or notice a worrying "fault" with the helicopter at start-up?
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 04:09
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This is something that I cover in my CRM courses, having been slung off a job once or twice for refusing to perform certain functions, and even having to threaten to counteract violence. I worked for a company once that responded to a request to change a female pilot because her boobs didn't bounce as much as the other one employed by the company. The fact that she had also refused to take a heavy helicopter out of a very small hole appeared to have nothing to do with it. This was in Canada, a place where passengers on the oil patch routinely refuse to wear shoulder straps in the front seat, so it's not only in the Gulf that this stuff happens. This one resulted in a stand-up argument in the ops room with senior management who were simply too stupid to realise they were digging themselves into a deeper hole. And don't get me started on refuelling helicopters with the engine running and nobody at the controls (yes, I know there are circumstances in really remote place where it just might be acceptable, but not when there is a medic sitting in his van all day reading novels).

Before I started flying I was very lucky (if you can call it that) to be in Transport & Movements (in the Army) and telling Generals (as a corporal) that they couldn't get on planes back to UK. Believe me, in the military, you soon learn to be diplomatic in such circumstances! If I got a really stroppy one all I had to do was invite him to pick up the phone and speak to the other General on the end of it.

As one who has been there, I can assure younger pilots of one thing, that, a walk on the wild side though it is, you simply have to say NO sometimes and risk your job. You might lose it, yes, but the results come back in spades some time later, because this industry is very small and the people that are worth knowing and working for hear about it and you will get work in the right place. This is not to say you should be rude to customers, but you must be firm and stick to your guns. The ultimate, of course, was Hugh Dowding who told Churchill he wasn't going to have any more Spitfires sent to France, but the principle is the same.

"I'm sorry sir, I can't put you on that frozen lake because I don't know the state of the ice, especially as you've just drilled a big hole through it, but I can land you on the shore and you can walk 50 meters across to it."

There's the key - always offer an alternative if possible. Look them in the eye, do it politely but firmly, and you will eventually be respected.

One way of looking at it is to realise that people who are putting the pressure on want something that you have, so you really have the upper hand, if you think about it.

Good luck!


"I have never taken disagreement as an indication that I am wrong."

Enoch Powell
paco is offline  
Old 11th Jun 2008, 05:18
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Politeness is the key........

I guess this would be an opportunity for us old buggers to regale Ppruners with some amusing stories but perhaps they are best shared over a glass of ale. Suffice it to say that when the 'wheels' get to review the detail of a problem day you can only be 'in the right' if you have been correct and polite.

Paco is right, try to offer an alternative or try to appear to be in hot pursuit of a 'Plan B'.

When asked by the UN to do yet another daft 'mission impossible' I would tell the crew to fly to the mountains then come back and simply say that the weather in the mountains was impassable. We were happy that nobody was embarrassed by saying 'No thanks, that's a daft idea' and the UN guys thought we were magic to at least give it a try.

Trying to thwart the whims of omnipotent potentates will take some doing but a sudden mechanical problem (oil leak? vibe? funny noise?) could force a delay to proceedings that let the moment pass without confrontation. After all, it is their hide as well as yours. You never know, it may even result in a brown envelope or a new Rolex instead of a plane ticket home.

It has always made the hairs on my neck stand on end when you survey the photos of an accident the day after and see how good the weather is and
how calm the day seems. If only they had not been so keen to do that flight - if only they had waited 24 hours...... sometimes less.

These people should not die without the lessons being learnt otherwise it is a waste. We owe it to their memory to look, listen and learn.

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Old 11th Jun 2008, 06:52
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The best piece of advice I have been given was from a former Squadron Commander when i was a lowly first-tourist Puma pilot in the RAF. I incorperate this principle into my everyday routine and it works very well in tricky situations and accords with PACOs recommendation of offering an alternative course of action.

His words to me were; "Don't come to me with problems, come to me with solutions!"

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Old 11th Jun 2008, 07:05
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The Word 'NO.'

Paco, My Dear Fellow,
!! If I might add: We all need to remember what we are paid to do, what our responsibilities are, and to whom we will answer.
In my 40 odd years, I have always run the route of being politically correct as long as possible, then varying levels of 'no-nesses', from thence to 'What part of NO don't you understand?'
Yes, we might lose the paycheck, BUT, we are alive to seek another, and more importantly - our consciences are clear, and as stated before - this industry is very small. One developes a reputation. I would rather mine be of a sensible nature - which, thankfully - it is.
1) Responsibility,
2) Responsibility,
3) When in doubt refer to # 1 and 2 above.
Responsibility is twofold:
1) To our selves
2) To our passengers.
When in doubt, refer to #1 and 2 above.
To err on the side of safety is not an invitation to damnation.
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 08:47
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Thanks for bringing up the topic, it's a well-worn subject and, as in the Gulf 139 case, has cost lives in the past, and most likely will cost lives again in the future.

Many of those who made the "wrong" decision have been remembered by friends and colleagues as one whom they thought would never have done such a thing - yet they did, and there's never an explanation available as to why. The scariest part of reading about accidents which have followed either a mechanical failure and subsequent emergency or poor decision-mkaing and subsequent emergency is wondering "What would I have done in the same situation?"

I know some people who scoff at what they see as the foolish performance of their peers, but if I've learned nothing else in the 51 years I've been on this earth, I've learned that there is nobody so perfect they can stand in judgement of others.

In practice, having had all sorts in the back over the years, offering an alternative is still the gentler and more effective way to let them down. As noted already, trenchant digging-in of heels tends not to go down too well.

Ultimately, there is no training for it. The day it happens, you'll have to take that nervous deep breath all on your own and try to hide your anxiety while you deliver what you hope will at least seem to be a calm and polite reason why they can't have exactly what they want.

The aircraft belongs to the company, the licence to fly it is mine.

Fly safe, all - and God speed to the departed!


Last edited by heliski22; 11th Jun 2008 at 16:28.
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 09:18
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As a lower-time pilot Iíve done some things that I know now and knew then I shouldnít have done Ė just because it was what was expected of me. Itís always going to be hard for younger pilots to take a principled stand, even if they know betterÖ

As Jors Troolie mentions, operators can help all of their pilots out by establishing very clear, written policies for what can and canít be done. Sometimes itís easier to deal diplomatically with a customer if you have a piece of paper you can point to as your authority. (Of course, this doesnít help when the operator is the one putting the pressure on, but itís a start.)
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 10:19
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I fail to see the issue. If you let an amateur override your judgement, then you have failed in your professional duty.
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 10:53
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The owner / customer can only take your job if you don't give them what they want.

The CAA can take your licence if you do!

However, if you let anyone pressure you into compromising safety you'll possibly lose everything.
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 11:56
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Thanks for your addition! Sadly, the industry has allowed the customer past a line that should have been firmly stuck to long ago, and as a result it is now influenced largely by the uneducated (or ignorant). We take on too many of other peoples' problems and it's about time it was stopped.

One example is the case of a pilot who was reminded, when he wanted to pull the job for weather, that if he didn't get the passengers to their destination in the next half hour they were going to lose $50,000. So what?

We should certainly have more support from management in this respect.

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Old 11th Jun 2008, 12:22
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Had an aircraft go tech on a rig, one passenger being the master of a jack up that was due to be moved. Company wanted a second aircraft to land on the rig to pick up the master so the jack up could move as it was costing mega bucks while sitting idle. Our manual allowed a second aircraft to land on a rig but only to drop an engineer to fix the broken aircraft and was not allowed to be carrying any other passengers. Much agrivation from management about money up the spout but pilot merely asked for signed approval from the CEO to carry out the requested task, guess what, no one was willing to put it up to the CEO.
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Old 11th Jun 2008, 17:08
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Y ken

It is easy to make sound and carefully considered decisions from the safety of the chair behind one's desk or from the comfort of a crewroom somewhere. As I said earlier, many people have gone to meet their maker on foot of decisions their colleagues would say was not in keeping or out of character. There is never any way of knowing quite why they elected to do what they did.

Shawn asked about training for such situations and, despite many briefings and discussions and even a bit of role-play if you could gather a few willing subjects, it isn't possible in my view, to prepare for these situations other than to be clear in your own mind as to what it is you will or will not do. In my short time as an instructor, I encouraged students to ask themselves a question before deciding on a particular course of action - "How would this look in any post-accident analysis?" If the answer was not good, then don't do it.

The problem remains, however, is that ultimately, as I said already, you have to stand completely alone and announce your position to those who will not be pleased to hear it.

Failing in professional duty may sound nice but it won't carrry any weight standing in a field on a mucky day faced with passengers who aren't going to be going home quite when they expected.

Ultimately, the difference between the amateur and the pofessional is that the professional is lucky enough to get paid for doing something where the amateur cannot. The decision-making ability rests entirely with the individual, whether a paid professional or not.

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Old 12th Jun 2008, 05:45
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Safety first

Like Paco, I first learned to say no in the military. I've lost count of the number of Field and General grade officers I've told that I couldn't do one thing or another because it's not safe. Once you trot that word out, everyone starts to have second thoughts. In my last assignment, I got in hot water a couple of times because I refused to fly overweight (we still did the mission, but with half as much cargo as they originally wanted to take) and refused to fly overwater without the required safety equipment onboard. In both instances, I was exonerated, but my name was mud and this led to me finally deciding to leave the service, a decision I have always regreted. Sometimes the result of saying no isn't that great.

I've been flying in the offshore business for years now and find the same rule applies, tell them it's not safe and they will back down immediately. As Chief Pilot, I would never ask a pilot to do something I wouldn't do myself, and if I have to duke it out with a client over a pilot's decision to turn down a request, so be it. I just tell them it's not safe and everything changes. To their credit, all of our past and present customers are really good about accepting the pilot in command's decision, and normally don't question it.

If reason will not prevail and you want to break the aircraft in a hurry, pull a circuit breaker or two. That will "fix" things in a hurry. The safety of the aircraft and it's passengers is ultimately the pilot in command's responsibility, but I've always been more inclined to worry about that guy in the front seat!
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Old 12th Jun 2008, 12:58
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Great replies.
So in the case in point, if the pilot relegated to the back end had heard something he really, really didn't like coming from the back of the helicopter, (the avionics bay, perhaps), or thought he smelled smoke that might have been a way to get the whole thing stopped.
Interesting thought. We need more innovative ways to say no!
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Old 12th Jun 2008, 21:40
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Battery contactor....
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Old 13th Jun 2008, 03:52
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Always assuming that the person in the front is in a condition to act on the information

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Old 13th Jun 2008, 05:35
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Mmmmm ...

A very difficult problem ..... years ago I got over this difficulty by having my 2 elder children hand write a letter to me .... it basically reminded me to "not take any silly chances when flying my helicopter, not to do anything stupid and to come home safely!" ...... it was signed by them (along with their then ages 6 & 5 yrs respectively).

I carried this letter with me in my wallet and whenever one of those moments arrived I told the recalcitrant that I was not authorised to comply with their request and showed them the letter. It was amazing the effect it had.


BTW ..... An extremely good thread this one !
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Old 13th Jun 2008, 06:36
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F++king brilliant Spinwing!
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Old 13th Jun 2008, 09:35
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I like that 1 spinwing. You'd have to be 1 heartless bastard to argue with that. Now I just gotta find me some kids!!!
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