I have a love-hate relationship with the notion that we analyze and report on aviation accidents as a means of preventing more from happening. It’s apparently not working very well because the accident rate is more or less static and pilots keep digging smoking craters for the same reasons, most of which are related to bad judgment. What we don’t do much of is reporting on clearly questionable judgments that could have been accidents, but weren’t because the tiny little slice of risk margin was enough. Just. Raising these as a point in the risk matrix is sometimes swatted away as just the safety weenies again spoiling all the fun.
Exhibit A this week is this video, which appeared on news broadcasts about three weeks ago. It was an Army helicopter flyover of Nissan Stadium in Nashville prior to an NFL game. Given the altitude, it was more like a fly through since the fans in the upper stands were at eye-level or a little above the lowest helicopter. The reporting on the incident made it to the upper reaches of the Army command structure. I asked former Army helo unit commander Jim Viola, who now oversees Helicopter Association International, if the display was viewed as a problem. A definite yes to that, on several levels, he said. No one he talked to liked it nor did they want to discuss it publicly. No one star or three star or however high this got likes a phone call with the question, “Did you see this?” Nor does a professional piloting community like being viewed as hot dogging it, the sideways winks and nods notwithstanding.
While helicopters have more liberal altitude guidelines than fixed-wing airplanes, they don’t get a blank check. Helicopters can legally operate below fixed-wing altitude limits, but with this provision … ”If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface.” This is where it gets hinky. When would a low pass like this become too low? Another 10 feet lower? Another 50? Reverse that and ask this: Would it be safer for the fans if the flyover happened at 500 feet? My answer is yes, it would, while still delivering on the flyover mission.
Viola’s command experience is in special operations helo work, which involves even more risk than mainstream military helicopter operations. Like professional aviators of all stripes, Army pilots are mission oriented sometimes to a fault and Viola says more than once he had to forcefully say no, not doing that because the risk isn’t worth the gain. And yes, this sometimes applies to combat operations, too.
In this interesting post, several military helicopter pilots said the flyover wasn’t as risky as it looked. Probably that’s true, but it’s also true that it’s not as safe—derisked as the MBAs might say—as it could have been with 500 feet (or more) between the aircraft and the spectators. I suspect the national command-level review of this incident that’s underway will raise that issue.
Like everyone in aviation, the military struggles with the definition of safety culture. The more I try to define it, the more confused I get. But as I understand it, a safety culture is an organizational philosophy that, among other things, teaches and encourages people to recognize when risky decisions are scraping the guard rails and to steadfastly take another course. It sometimes means saying no when everyone else is voting an enthusiastic yes.
The Army will have to decide if this flyover came out of a safety culture that’s working as it should. Viola tells me the Army accident rate could stand improvement so I’d be surprised if the decision tree that led to this is a signpost on the road to fewer wrecks.
For civilians, the value is to look at the flyover and ask yourself if your safety culture would do the same. I have to admit it’s marginal for me. It’s not exactly a wild-eyed crazy stunt for skilled, trained pilots. But I’d feel compelled to tilt the balance away from the momentary thrill and toward more airspace for the unsuspecting fans.
So yes, God help me, I may be turning into a safety weenie.