POSITION & HOLD
Our sixth sense—best inflight aid of all By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo. Challenger 604
t was 1:30 am and I was in charge of a Bell 412 flying in a cold rain, ceiling about 800 ft. Visibility was decent. Our medical crew in the back of the aircraft was chatting over the intercom. They were preparing for the patients we’d soon be picking up from a vehicle crash site—a place where 2 obscure farm roads cross deep in farm country. The wipers slapped across the windshield as I watched for ground reference points up ahead. Those points helped me to be sure the visibility didn’t suddenly get worse, potentially plunging us into an IFR misadventure. Per company protocols, we’d launched into the dark, rainy night after going through the required weather checks. That meant pulling up the nearest airport weather, which in this case was 75 miles away from the accident scene. Having determined that VFR conditions prevailed at this airport, I approved a launch. EMS pilots are blessed with the same standards for night launches that air mail pilots used in the 1920s. I began picking up the flickering play of emergency lights in the rain a few miles ahead of us as the medical crew began talking to the volunteer firefighters at the accident scene on the county radio frequency. As we closed on the scene I could see that it was an east-west road intersecting a north-south one. The firefighter on the radio told us that the wind was calm and that we should land south of the scene on the road running north. There was increasing tension in the voice of our nurse handling communications as she anticipated the carnage they would have to sort out in the coming minutes. As was customary, she asked the firefighter if there were any obstructions on our approach path. “Nope, it’s all clear,” he replied. Something about his reply caught my attention—maybe he was a little too quick and hadn’t really checked. I selected the ground frequency on my audio panel and gave the nurse a heads-up that I was going to talk to the fireman. “Life Flight One to ground units, confirm there are no wires anywhere in the approach area,” I said. The moment of silence that followed told me I was right. Then a scratchy voice from a handheld radio squawked, “Uh, no wires around here.” Okay, I thought, this guy may know what he’s doing, but most emergency crews in this neck of the woods are volunteers and sometimes their training is less than complete. We were set up on a wide right base to a turn north to final approach. As we slowed for the beginning of the approach I started up the Nightsun and the big landing light and set them both to shine right down our glidepath to the LZ. Then I slowed down so that I was looking down the glidepath through the chin bubble, the aircraft rattling on the edge of translational lift. The radio chatter increased as the nurses copied updated patient assessments from the groundcrew and shouldered up their packs for leaving the aircraft on touchdown.
Suddenly I began to see little specks of light in the searchlight beams. When the specks became light blips of increasing length, I knew that my hunch had been right— they were wires! With the darkness, the rain and the excitement of arrival at the accident, the fireman hadn’t looked that far away from the scene. He’d missed the wires. I aborted the approach, adding power and climbing a couple of hundred feet to make sure we stayed out of the wires. As we started our climb I saw the giant towers go by underneath us. The intercom crackled as the nurses yelled out, “Where are we going? We need to land!” “Take a deep breath,” I replied. “We’ll be on the ground in a few and later I’ll tell you what happened.” After we landed and the nurses were doing their jobs, I propped the pilot’s door open with my boot, the engines idling in cooldown. A firefighter came over and looked up at me, rain dripping from his helmet. “Hey, what was that all about—your approach, I mean?” I looked down at him. “Were you the one I was talking to on the radio?” I asked. He grinned and puffed out his chest a little. “Yes, sir, that was me.” Overcoming my first impulse—to rip him a new one— with the thought that here was a man doing the best he could, out serving his community on a cold, rainy night, I replied, “Well, I just didn’t like the approach. Always better to go around than try to salvage a bad arrival.” Then I leaned out, pointed back down the road and asked him, “But I was wondering—did you see those wires way back down the road there?” He squinted into the night and his face dropped as he saw the towers. “Oh, my God!” he said. “Did you...” “Yeah, I picked them up in the landing light—that’s why we went around.” Embarrassment was written all over his face. I reached out my hand, saying, “It’s just between us, okay?” He took my hand and shook it. “Yes, sir, I appreciate that,” he said. “We never stop learning, do we?” “Not in this business,” I agreed, and continued shaking his hand. Now that night vision goggles are becoming part of the EMS scene, wires will be much easier to spot—and our long-sought safer operating environment will be a step closer. But no matter how many new flight aids we have, nothing replaces that “jungle sense” of danger that we somehow cultivate in this business. Time and again the common thread of a sixth sense saves the day. Vigilance, judgment—and that jungle sense—will always be the greatest asset of every aviator and his customers. Woody McClendon is a sales executive with a major aircraft company. He flies jets and helicopters.