‘A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities, and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties’

Harry S Truman

My colleagues in the US, Italy and Kuala Lumpur have more than 100,000 hours of watching pilots interact with the AW139 cockpit environment. You can be sure that we have a pretty good idea which bits work and which don’t. I’m sure that many, like me, recognise that the 139 is a truly magnificent helicopter – but one with a few imperfections in need of ‘fixing’. At the moment it is being upgraded incrementally in response to problems that arise. I can’t help but wonder how these ‘improvements’ could have been enhanced or accelerated thanks to feedback from the corps of SFIs and TRIs who have clocked up tens of thousands of hours in the 139 cockpit. I have yet to meet anyone who has been asked by a designer to contribute.

Anyone who thinks it was a smart idea to have three avionic buttons in the same avionics suite bearing the legend ‘NAV’ needs to come and sit with me sometime when I am trying to teach system management. The words ‘Now select NAV’, are the precursor to another nightmare of confusion.

I’m what is often referred to as a ‘petrol-head’ – a car enthusiast. I read in my Jaguar Enthusiast magazine that until Ford took over ownership of the Jaguar marque, there was no department called ‘Production Engineering’. This revelation answered many questions about the poor build quality of many of the early Jaguar models designed and built with no coordination between the design and the build sections of the business. Until Ford reorganised the manufacturing system by creating a new department called ‘Production Engineering’, the cars were designed by the Design Department and built by the Manufacturing Department with minimal interdepartmental communication. It is vital that those building any device can benefit from feedback provided by end-user before committing to mass production and continue to do so during the life of the product.

I have huge respect for test pilots and test engineers, but the reality is that at best their experience in the world of daily helicopter operations is limited. It would help, I believe if once in a while they were allowed to climb out of their silo and share a coffee with those that have years of experience at the coal-face.

And by the way…

We have to understand that the Rotorcraft Flight Manual is designed to meet the requirements of the certification process and is not a complete ‘pilot’s guide’. What will meet this description is a new document, now under development, called a ‘Flight Crew Operations Manual’ or FCOM. It will be interesting to see what changes are made to emergency procedures when operational factors are taken into account. I wonder, for example, if I will still be expected to teach my trainees to ‘continue flight’ when both BATT HOT CAS and AUX BATT HOT messages have come on. I tell them to exercise their common sense and treat these two CAS messages with greater significance. They indicate that something has gone seriously wrong with the electrical system and they should react accordingly.

And another thing….

Don’t get me on to the subject of Battery switches – I’ve given up banging on about how seven trainees (so far) have killed themselves doing an (IMC) Double Generator Failure drill – in the simulator! They switch off the BATTERY MASTER instead of the switch next door, the BATTERY MAIN switch. You try explaining the difference between MAIN and MASTER to a non-English speaker. I think the Human Factors people call them ‘Latent Errors’. Why not call them No 1 Battery and No 2 Battery and leave the Battery Master Switch to speak for itself?

And one last observation…

There were times when a single AP drop-out was so common during the final approach phase that it became unremarkable. Sometimes the vibration caused both APs to drop out. However, the most frequent cause of pilot induced AP1 & 2 failures that I witness in the sim is down to the inadvertent use of the ‘SAS Release’ button when going for the ‘FD S/BY button’.  By the way, the SAS Release button is the one that takes out both AP’s simultaneously, so I have never understood why it isn’t labelled ‘AP OUT’. Another ‘latent error’?

The RFM advises the pilot that use of the GA button when in an ‘unusual attitude’ is an acceptable technique. Unfortunately, if an unusual attitude is a result of pressing the SAS release button, then it using the GA button will not help one jot. Better, I believe to have a good basic recovery technique and not rely on a system that may in fact not be there when you need it most. If I were the custodians of the RFM, then I would change that advice before someone follows it and comes to an unfortunate end as a result.

We shouldn’t forget that we teach that when the automation fails to deliver as expected the pilot should revert to ‘manual’ control until the problems are resolved. The very act of reverting to manual will cause the pilot to reach for the FD/SBY button on the cyclic, and that’s when there’s a chance that things will rapidly deteriorate if the wrong button is pressed.

Don’t designers realise what a wealth of information the experienced SFI represents? It so frustrating to be teaching on arguably the best helicopter in the world only to find that it is selling so well there is apparently no incentive to improve it. The problem is that there is the incentive, so long as there is sufficient pressure from enough customers.  However, they don’t appear to seek, nor listen to suggestions from within (that are not from Flight Test).  Big companies rarely know what they know.

When an organisation’s interpretation of enhanced communications is to increase the speed and volume of data moving down the management tree, it may inadvertently create a system where it’s tough to move vital feedback information against the established flow. It reinforces the notion that information only flows ‘downhill’.

As the famous US General, Colin Powell said: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.”

In our business, the lack of free-flowing information can result in tragic consequences.