Helicopters: Just How Safe Are They?

Police work and flying share many common elements. Both have accepted and inherent risks. Both require extensive training, both initial and in-service. Finally, both professions have an incredible dedication and commitment to safety.

The famous newscaster, Harry Reasoner, made an interesting observation about helicopters and helicopter pilots. Mr. Reasoner wrote that "a helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter." Mr. Reasoner was not exactly correct. Helicopters still fly after an engine failure but descend much steeper and faster than an airplane does. The helicopter's glide is known as an "auto-rotation" and the aircraft can be landed safely. Just like firearms proficiency, police pilots practice these emergencies frequently. This is not to say that police aviation is perfectly safe. Police aviation has had their share of aircraft accidents. Many of these can be traced back to the nature of their mission. Police helicopters often fly low, slow and at night, therefore near obstructions, wires, tress and hazards. In addition, they often land in areas not designed for aircraft such as parking lots, open fields and on highways. Unfortunately, this mission profile does increase flight risk. These risks and the accident rate are a challenge for all police aviation units. The Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) has made improving police aviation safety an absolute priority in their mission and have instituted a program known as "Safety First" to target safer police airborne law enforcement operations. Very much like their ground counterparts that critique and learn from line-of-duty deaths, police aviators critique and learn from aircraft accidents and exchange information all in an effort to prevent accidents and incidents and save lives.

Pilot Flight Training

Harry Reasoner also noted a difference between airplane and helicopter pilots. He wrote "airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened, it is about to". Actually, Mr. Reasoner could have said the same thing about police officers as being anticipators of trouble. Police officers and helicopter pilots seem to share the same attitude and disposition. Any pilot's flight training focuses largely on emergency flight maneuvers. For helicopter pilots, this includes engine failures while hovering and in flight, hydraulic failures and tail rotor failures. When the engine quits, pilots train to "auto rotate" from all different flight configurations such as takeoff, in-flight cruise, and while landing. In a helicopter, when the engine quits, the helicopter's glide angle (the angle at which the helicopter will descend) is fairly steep. The main rotor system is "driven" by the upward rush of air. The helicopter pilot identifies a clearing in which they can land, maneuvers to that clearing and then safely lands the helicopter. The helicopter can maneuver and turn just as if the engine is working. Some pilots will even argue that the helicopter has more options when an engine quits. A helicopter could be safely auto-rotated to a supermarket parking lot, while it might be hard to land a small single-engine aircraft in such a parking lot. A factory flight training school such as Bell Helicopter Textron Customer Training Academy dedicates a large amount of practice time to practicing auto rotations. In fact, during a three-hour recurrent session practicing emergency maneuvers, a pilot might do over twenty practice auto-rotations. If a simulator is involved, even more emergencies can be practiced. Fire and smoke in the cockpit are just two emergencies that can be practiced in a simulator and cannot be replicated in an actual aircraft. The pilot will initially train and then practice their response and actions to almost every conceivable emergency. Just as with their police skills, most police pilots take pride in doing their jobs safely and effectively. In addition to their piloting skills, a pilot is required to maintain a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical. These medicals, administered and conducted by a designated Aviation Medical Examiner, are not overly thorough or exhaustive. Unfortunately, in some cases, failing a medical exam could mean the end of your flying career.

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