By Gene Trainor, FAA Rotorcraft Collective
For many helicopter pilots, flying with passengers is part of the job. That means these pilots must heed the importance of an effective passenger preflight briefing to help ensure everyone remains safe before, during, and after the flight.
This rang true for Chris Baur, who, while flying helicopters for the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1980s, was also a charter captain, flying passengers between Coast Guard missions. Baur, now president and CEO of Hughes Aerospace and the industry co-chair of the United States Helicopter Safety Team, recalls a flight that required some action to keep his passenger safe. The flight landed safely at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York after picking up a famous comedian and Saturday Night Live alum from a northern New Jersey heliport at night. The passenger exited the rear of the helicopter while it was still running and before the arrival of a marshaller — a person designated to open aircraft doors and escort passengers to the terminal. This passenger had flown many times with Baur and was briefed and familiar with the procedures, especially embarking and disembarking from the front of the helicopter.
Baur locked the controls and jumped out of the helicopter, stopping the passenger just in time from walking into the spinning tail rotor that was invisible in the darkness. The passenger turned to him with the look of “why did you just grab me?” Because of the noise, Baur then pointed to the tail rotor and ran his finger across his throat to indicate to the startled passenger that he could have been killed.
“He looked at me again, and gave me a big hug,” Baur said. “I pulled him away, and said, ‘Let’s go farther away from the tail rotor,’ and then sent him on his way.”
To help keep your passengers safe and prepare them on what to expect during a helicopter flight, watch the FAA’s Rotorcraft Collective video called Preflighting Your Passengers at youtu.be/xpMQNHvxC7c.
The FAA-industry produced video advises pilots to conduct passenger briefings in an office or another quiet room before approaching the helicopter. Pilots should be frank with passengers about helicopter hazards and safety precautions. Here are some key takeaways to pass on to passengers:
- Always be in an area where the pilot can see you.
- Never approach the tail boom.
- Enter the helicopter only as briefed. Passengers should approach a helicopter in a crouching manner.
- Never drop anything from a helicopter.
- Seatbelts must remain fastened.
- In an emergency, only exit a helicopter after the rotors have stopped spinning. The only exception is if the helicopter has smoke or fire.
- Know all fire extinguisher locations and how to use them.
- Know all life preserver locations and how to use them.
- Know how to use a headset and be aware of the sterile cockpit concept — only flight relevant conversation is allowed during parts of the flight.
- When exiting a helicopter, only marshalling personnel should be allowed to open helicopter doors, release safety belts, and escort people out.
Once at the helicopter, wait for any noise to subside before resuming the passenger briefing. Emphasize that any item that blows away must be retrieved by marshalling personnel only. Make sure they know how to properly use the seatbelts, retrieve the life vests, and secure their items. Ask questions to verify their understanding.
Pilots should record themselves or have another pilot listen to their briefings to provide feedback. And as the video states, use checklists to ensure you provide all of the necessary information.
Always provide passenger briefings to your passengers, no matter how many times they have flown with you. And be ready to take some dramatic actions to save a life if needed.
The bottom line is that everyone aboard a helicopter has a role to play to help ensure a safe flight. Educating passengers to take an active role in their safety helps raise the public’s awareness that we all have a stake in aviation safety.
Gene Trainor is an FAA communications specialist and Rotorcraft Collective member.