Helicopter safety and the sleepy summertime blues
Friday, May 16, 2014
Summer — the fat season for helicopter EMS — is quickly approaching, and with it comes a spike in the monthly accident rate. That's what new data from the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team suggests.
A study released in April from the USHST clearly shows that helicopter accidents and the percentage of fatal accidents increase as the temperature rises, peaking in July. The data is counterintuitive from the pilot point of view. Some of us equate the lazy, hazy days of summer with good flying weather, and things are more relaxed.
That mindset could precisely be the problem, according to the USHST. The threat of bad weather is no less deadly over the summer — just warmer. Summer brings with it a cornucopia of climatological hell — thunderstorms, hurricanes, hail and night-time advection fog that pops out of seemingly nowhere, to name just a few.
Like many other aspects of aviation safety, it comes down to the math. In summer, more people are outside doing more foolish things that require the intervention of helicopter EMS. That means more missions, more flight hours, sometimes more fatigue — and more accidents. Historically, the accident rate for July is more than double that for December.
"As the busy season of helicopter operations approaches, pilots are urged to focus on proper preparation and a careful and prudent attitude every time they fly," the USHST counsels. "They should pay special attention to weather and visibility issues and to all possible operational risks, even during the most routine flights."
Keeping tabs on the weather is important, but keeping tabs on yourself is essential. What is your physical condition and that of your crew? While it is always important to get proper sleep, nutrition and hydration, it is perhaps more so in the summer, when extreme heat and humidity place maximum stressors on the body.
Dragging it physically is a sure sign your mental acuity is suffering and, with it, the looming threat of really bad decision-making. You don't want to go there.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Dr. Mark Rosekind has done exhaustive (pardon the pun) studies on sleep deprivation and performance. Last year Rosekind noted that "American society still characterizes pushing the sleep envelope as 'hardworking, results-oriented and dedicated,' but when it comes to operating any kind of vehicle, fatigue can be deadly."
According to Rosekind, it doesn't take much sleep deprivation to have consequences. "There is a 17 percent increase in crashes on our roadways on the Monday following the time change," he noted.
The NTSB has long noted sleep deprivation as a causal factor in aviation accidents, and the FAA recently instituted new crew duty time rules to address the problem. But it really comes down to your own personal sleep hygiene.
In the summer, when the humidity is up and the air conditioner buzz keeps you awake in the crew sleep room, understand the risks of not getting enough shut-eye. As Rosekind counsels, "Sleep as if your life and those around you depend on it."
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