August 1, 2005
How well prepared are you to escape from an airplane full of dense smoke and fumes following a landing mishap? Could you handle an in-flight medical emergency, or survive the aftermath of a night ditching? Putting aside for a moment the more typical kinds of emergency situations we pilots tend to fret about (like flying the airplane when an engine fails after takeoff), the truthful answers to questions like these are likely "not very" and "maybe."
That most of us could be better prepared than we are is the premise of Bombardier Aerospace Learjet division's annual Safety Standdown, held in Wichita. The three-day conference, comprised of various high-quality training seminars and hosted by Bombardier for the eighth year in a row, attracted more than 400 pilots. (Bombardier provides the conference free to all invited participants.) It's open to all pilots regardless of which aircraft type they operate and is endorsed by the FAA, the National Test Pilot School (NTPS), and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which issues continuing education credits to participants.
As you might expect, corporate pilots were in abundance. Others came from the ranks of some of aviation's better-known alphabet groups (the FAA, NASA, and the NTSB, to name a few), as well as all the military branches, some law enforcement agencies, and at least a few airlines. Several well-known and highly accomplished aviators also attended, including Bob Hoover and astronauts Steve Nagel (a four-time shuttle veteran), Gene Cernan, and Wally Schirra.
According to Bob Agostino, Bombardier Business Aircraft's director of flight operations, the reason Bombardier hosts the Safety Standdown every year is simple. "Industry training has simply not kept pace with the realities of the operating environment." Thus, the conference is meant to fill the gap between training mandated by regulation and what real-world experience shows is needed to improve aviation safety. As Agostino points out, "This is about headwork, not hand-eye coordination skills." In other words, the focus of the conference isn't so much on technical flying ability as it is on getting pilots to think about human factors that can help prevent accidents in the first place, and practical skills that can mitigate the aftereffects of an accident or emergency situation once it occurs.
A medical and emergency-procedures training seminar offered as part of the Safety Standdown was a good example of this kind of human-factors-oriented approach. It was delivered by FACTS/AirCare International, a company that specializes in providing crewmember emergency training to corporate flight departments. Besides putting together a superbly delivered and informative lecture, the company brought in its state-of-the-art cockpit/cabin emergency evacuation simulator, inverted underwater "Dunkers" for practicing water-ditching survival techniques, as well as life rafts and various other kinds of survival equipment.
Company founder and President Dr. Douglas Mykol brings a strong background to the subject of medical and emergency training. Besides being a naturopathic physician, he's a private pilot and author of several first-aid and emergency-training programs and manuals. He pioneered a human-factors approach to corporate and charter aviation emergency training — his was the first company in the corporate aviation world to stress the importance of team training pilots and flight attendants in handling emergency situations. Mykol has been successful in selling the concept that training and preparation can improve a crewmember's ability to handle an emergency situation in the same way that practicing ILS approaches on nice days pays off when the weather is not so good. Besides providing such training, his company sells emergency equipment such as smoke hoods, emergency medical kits, and automatic external defibrillators.
Teaching emergency preparedness to corporate aviation customers is a tough challenge. Consider that the breadth and scope of corporate aviation is huge. It ranges from one-person flight departments operating light single- or twin-engine piston aircraft to large operations flying airline-class jets across the globe. And there's no end to the variety of emergency situations that pilots or flight attendants might find themselves in, either. With these realities in mind, Mykol doesn't pretend to teach crewmembers how to be "ready for anything." Instead, his company trains pilots and flight attendants to deal with problems that experience has shown occur with some regularity. For the Safety Standdown, FACTS/AirCare International's program included modules on emergency medical training (including hands-on practice of CPR and use of automatic external defibrillators for treating cardiac-arrest cases), as well as training for land or water evacuations and their aftermath.
An emergency evacuation is one of those highly stressful situations where knowing what to do ahead of time can pay big dividends. According to Mykol, most deaths and serious injuries following a survivable accident are because of post-crash fire and inhalation of smoke and toxic fumes. Essentially, the initial survivors don't get out of the aircraft fast enough. Crash impact forces are often a secondary factor. Mykol cites cases where most occupants were alive when the aircraft came to a stop, but subsequently suffered serious injury or death because of ignorance of emergency procedures and use of safety equipment.
Understanding how to find an emergency exit in the dark or how to don smoke goggles in the cockpit can spell the difference between life and death.
That being the case, the company espouses preparedness as key to success. When faced with an unplanned emergency situation such as striking an object on the runway during landing, any preparation must already have been accomplished ahead of time. One technique Mykol recommends is to perform a 30-second mental "Escape" review prior to every takeoff or landing, a concept most flight attendants are familiar with but most pilots probably aren't. The acronym stands for exits (what are my primary and secondary exits?), signal (what signal will be given to initiate an evacuation?), commands (what do I need to shout to survivors who may be in shock?), assess (what are the conditions outside the airplane?), procedures (how do I operate the exits?), and equipment (where is the emergency equipment located on this airplane?). Performing such a mental checklist "arms" your reaction plan ahead of time, making it more likely it will kick into action when you need it most.
A planned emergency by contrast differs primarily by the amount of time one has to prepare. Even a few minutes to get ready can make a big difference in the outcome. Take the case of a systems failure, a situation that might also require an emergency evacuation after landing. In such a circumstance, Mykol recommends the pilot use a mental TEST checklist (type of emergency? evacuation/exit plan? signals before landing and evacuation? time to go before landing?) as the basis for briefing other crewmembers or passengers. It's a fast and dirty way for the pilot to help ensure everyone else on board knows what to expect next.
Mykol's Safety Standdown presentation was filled with lots of these kinds of practical strategies. Many of them would be handy to have in your bag of tricks regardless of whether you're involved in general, corporate, airline, or military aviation.
It's one thing to imagine evacuating from a crashed aircraft, another thing altogether to experience it firsthand. Fortunately I've never experienced the latter scenario. (Mykol says you'd need to travel on an airline flight every day for 35,000 years to be certain of being in an accident.) But I did get a chance to sit through several "crashes" in the smoke-filled, darkened confines of FACTS/AirCare International's cockpit/cabin emergency evacuation simulator. Feeling along the cabin floor for indications of an exit in near zero visibility, while bumping into fellow passengers confused as to their own whereabouts and possibly in shock, makes you acutely aware of the ticking clock. And it drives home the point that whatever you can do ahead of time to mentally prepare yourself to handle such a situation is effort well spent.
Other aspects of this seminar provided equally good insight into some subjects that typical pilot training doesn't cover for most corporate aircraft operators. The poolside Dunkers session was popular with attendees, who got to experience what it might be like to escape from a water-filled, submerged aircraft. And the in-flight medical emergencies portion contained a great overview of first-aid procedures, including how to recognize and respond to conditions such as a heart attack, food poisoning, or choking.
One of Bombardier's criteria for inviting companies or individuals to put on seminars at Safety Standdown is that they be acknowledged experts in their field. That policy, and seminars like this, is why this annual conference keeps getting bigger and better each year.
Vincent Czaplyski holds airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He flies as a Boeing 757/767 captain for a major U.S. airline.
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