Allaying fears of copter flights


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  • Monday, 13 Apr 2015

The truth is this – one stands a better chance of survival after a total power failure in a helicopter than in an airplane.

FORMER US ambassador Adlai Stevenson once said that speculation is a natural outcome of the human mind when the truth is obscured.

His contention is clear – when truth is masked, people will be forced to derive their own conclusions and guesstimates from unverified information and unascertained facts.

This always happens in the absence of answers, when there’s a wilful disregard of people’s right to know. This desire for information is stronger when a tragedy occurs.

We all witnessed the extent of human grief after the triple air tragedies last year from conflicting reports and official misinformation. Frustrations were further compounded when authorities refused to disclose key information they were privy to.

This is why governments need to tread very carefully when dealing with significant public concerns, especially in times of disasters.

The recent helicopter crash is no exception.

People need reassurance. They need to know why it happened and most importantly, reassured that no effort will be spared to prevent recurrences.

Not political posturing, denial of truth, avoidance of responsibility or worst of all, irrelevant discussion about the personal lives of victims.

Since the tragic crash, I received many emails, private messages and verbal queries from very concerned people.

Aside from political personalities, I also lost a friend, the late Capt Cliff Fournier whom I deeply respect, not only for his commitment to flight safety but also for his devotion to his family.

The last time I had a drink with Cliff led to a rather serious discussion on public concerns about helicopters. We both felt there was a real need to dispel certain myths surrounding the helicopter’s safety aspects.

Never guessed that the discussion would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for him in the worst possible way.

If there’s something I learnt from the late aviator, it is simply this: Pilots have a responsibility to ensure that flying not only remains safe but perceived to be safe. We have a moral duty to uphold public trust.

As such, I’m compelled to honour his legacy by examining these concerns and allaying some typical fears about the perceived dangers of helicopter flying.

The first is that helicopters are doomed to fall out of the sky if an engine fails. Yet people can’t be faulted for this.

The very design of the helicopter suggests that it will descend at such an uncontrollable rate and crash in the event of an engine failure.

Yet the truth is this. Although helicopters don’t have the best gliding distances after an engine failure, they are able to do something that even planes cannot do, as long as their rotor blades are turning.

It’s called autorotation, which means that you stand a better chance of survival after a total power failure in a helicopter than in an airplane.

Basically, what happens after an engine fails is this – an automatic disconnection of the engine from the rotor by an independent unit housed in the main transmission.

This enables its rotors to function more or less like a windmill, the effect which is called “coasting”, which is why helicopters won’t fall like a ton of bricks if its engine fails.

Although it will descend faster, pilots are trained to manipulate it in a manner which converts the excess momentum into a certain amount of lift as it nears the ground.

Therefore, a helicopter pilot can still make a safe landing with zero injuries to passengers even in the most unfavourable conditions.

The second misconception is that helicopters are too fragile to fly in strong winds.

Again, the truth is that helicopters are actually able to withstand the effects of strong winds better than most aeroplanes as they don’t need forward motion to take off or land.

Unlike airplanes, a helicopter can quickly be turned to face the wind to minimise take-off and landing risks.

While planes are typically limited by crosswinds greater than 56 km/h, a helicopter can in fact withstand twice the amount. Some oil platform helidecks in the North Sea have wind limitations of up to 100 km/h.

While this may provide little solace to the families of those who perished, I will still reiterate that helicopter flights are safe, especially in Sarawak where many still depend on helicopters for quick connectivity.

And this is the truth about helicopters, despite the fact that the man who believed in it most died trying to save one.

I’d like to end with a poignant piece dedicated to the late Cliff William Fournier Jr.

“There must be a place where old pilots go, when their wings become heavy and speed gets low,

Where the whiskey is old, friends are young, and songs about flying are sung,

Where someone buys you a drink, if your thirst should be bad, while saying, “He was a good lad!”

And there, through the mist, you see an old guy not seen in years, though he taught you to fly,

He nods, grinning ear to ear and saying “Welcome my son, we’re proud you’re here!”

“Relax with a cold one, and a well-deserved rest! This is heaven. You’ve passed your final test!”

– Mike Larkin, retired pilot, TWA

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