The Dangerous Turn

Jeff White, M.S., MTSP-C, FP-C

Director of Safety, HealthNet Aeromedical Services

In the helicopter air ambulance (HAA) environment we know that at any given time, there could be a catastrophic event.  We train and try to prepare ourselves to the very best of our abilities, always trying to be ready for the worst.  Often the focus on safety is lost until something catastrophic happens, then it is in the forefront again.  This ebb and flow of accidents can be seen in the retrospective looks completed by the FAA and NTSB.  We bring this up now as 2019 is shaping up to a high accident year.


It seems with all the focus and attention on accident prevention and safety we are climbing higher and higher in 2019. Why is this happening? Can every accident be attributed to human error? Some would argue it is always human error because even a mechanical failure of a part involved a human designing, building and installing the part. We tend to deviate from normal standard practice once we get into a routine and habit, thus leading to a normalization of deviance.  Researchers say that approximately 95% of a person’s day is subconscious, meaning we are running on auto pilot and going through the motions of our daily routine. For example, once we have used a checklist enough times so memorize it we often stop using the checklist or once we have checked our equipment enough times we just expect it to be there when we do our daily checks.  Is this normalization an issue that we can overcome?  Is most training not set up to create these repetitious, muscle memory type patterns?  Is our current method of training and operation part or the problem?  How unsafe is changing processes too frequently?

Oversight and regulation have quite a bit of influence on all the areas questioned above. There is a large push in general aviation to get the safety message out to smaller and private operators who often miss the national releases and programs.  As you can see from the graphs provided by the FAA, HAA operations account for a very small portion of the overall aviation accidents.  However, they get quite a bit of attention in the public eye because most often they involve a patient or response to a patient potentially causing harm to those outside of the industry.




It is incumbent on all of us as an industry to be our brother’s keeper and help each other. Small to large operators must work together to make sure we all go home at the end of our day.