A typical response I get from onlookers who have watched an ag aircraft at work is: “It looks really exciting!” to which I reply that you don’t ever want it to get exciting because that usually means you’ve not heeded the oft-quoted adage about a superior pilot using superior judgment to stay out of situations requiring superior skills.
You just want daily operations season after season to be routine, with safe and effective applications and no unneeded excitement. Part and parcel of preparing for a new season is an annual recommitment to putting safety on the ground and in the air as your operation’s number one priority.
The question then becomes how to make the upcoming season even safer than the one just completed. Here are some suggestions to add to your existing safety programs.
A Culture of Safety
A while back, I was fortunate to be flying the Director of Flight Safety for the Canadian Air Force to a high-level flight safety conference. We chatted along the way about several things, one of them being how to make aviation safer. One item that really stuck with me was when he said, “Safety can’t be legislated; it has to come about with a culture change where safety is the number one priority.”
No matter how many rules you put in place, no matter how consequential the penalties you impose, safety must come literally from the ground up. To accomplish that, you need to offer safety programs that focus on education.
One great example of this philosophy in action is the Professional Aerial Applicator Support System (PAASS). This yearly education program covers critical safety and drift mitigation issues. The objective is to reduce the number of aviation accidents and drift incidents associated with aerial application operations. It is available through many State and Regional Agricultural Aviation Associations. Take full advantage of PAASS. You’ll be glad you did.
If you live north of the 49th, check out the Canadian Aerial Applicators Association website, notably the Learning Centre. There you will find an abundance of excellent materials that promote safety and education amongst its members.
From Theory to Action
I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand. This ancient Oriental proverb makes the point that when it comes to learning, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as experience, and authentic learning comes when experience produces an action.
Here’s just one example. You can talk about the pitch-up that accompanies jettisoning a full load. You can watch someone else dump a full load with the attendant pitch up. Or you can really educate yourself by jettisoning a full load (of water) at a safe altitude to experience firsthand the heavy pressures required on the dump lever to initiate a jettison and the rapid and heavy stick pressures needed to counteract the accompanying pitch-up moment that occurs with a full jettison.
That way, if you decide to get rid of a load in actual operations, you will be prepared and ready for action.
Check It Out
I always find it surprising and a bit humbling how much one can forget in a relatively short time, such as finding all the fuel drain valves as part of a pre-flight walkaround. Likewise, the Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) checklist procedures are always more than just a bit rusty after a long layoff. Moreso is the many operating limitations contained in the POH.
Off-season is a great time to review the manufacturer’s checklists, particularly items such as engine failure at low altitudes where reaction time is critical. You look after your checks, and your checks will look after you.
Remember the Domino Effect
It’s easy enough to make safe decisions when daily operations are routine, but it’s when the action gets hot and heavy, and you are faced with a barrage of incoming factors at once – approaching inclement weather, a sudden insect outbreak, an unexpected engine problem – it’s like a domino effect on stress levels and operational pressures. That’s when we need to strictly adhere to operational safety tenets.
You can also use the domino effect to your advantage. Our behaviors are interconnected, so when you change one behavior, other behaviors tend to shift in a similar direction. The implementation of one safety initiative tends to lead to additional safety initiatives.
Stay in Your Comfort Zone
As you progress through the new season, you will regain more and more proficiency in aircraft handling, but in the early days of a new season, stay in your comfort zone. Don’t push the weather. Don’t push the performance limits of the aircraft. Don’t push the load size. When you are about to take off, and your Spidey sense is tingling with a vague but strong sense of something being wrong, take the time to have a second look. Don’t shoot first and ask questions later. It will get you into the kind of trouble you don’t want.
Read and Discuss Accident/Incident Reports
“The probable cause being the pilot’s failure to maintain adequate clearance from – you pick one – the crop, the tower, the powerline, the tree line.” While such reports are often stark in their assessment of an incident, they are real-life scenarios that could happen to anyone. They provide an excellent resource to begin conversations on risk management in the industry.
Adapt and Innovate
From the early days of ag aviation, where human flaggers were used to guide the aircraft on each spray pass, through flag dispensers, and the early adoption of GPS units, the industry has always been a place where innovation and change are part and parcel of normal operations. Be open to new ideas and operational innovations, and make that a part of your annual recommitment to safety. The only surprises you’ll get are pleasant ones.