Sunday, February 18, 2007

Part of the cockpit panel of an MU-2 I used to fly.

Pressure to do a flight is pretty common in aviation. When you are working for a charter company, if you don't do the flight, you don't get paid. I am incredibly fortunate that my current situation as a corporate pilot allows me to focus on safety more than some other jobs might, and I have had absolutely zero pressure to complete flights when anything indicates that it might not be safe to do so. The people at my parent company who board my jet really 'get', at a fundamental level, that there are no situations where it's acceptable to risk safety to complete a trip in bad weather or with a broken airplane. Meetings can be rescheduled, and the weather will usually be better in a day or two.

But in some niches of aviation, some flights can actually be life-and-death. If a person is really sick and stuck in a northern community with no road access, the stakes are a little higher for them, and the pressure increases on the flight crew to do the trip. When I flew medevacs and the Captain got a phone call from MEDCOM to do a trip, the Captain wouldn't be provided any information on the condition of the patient which theoretically was supposed to reduce the pressure on the Captain to complete the trip - for all they know it could be a broken leg instead of an unstable heart condition, and they were told to concentrate on the weather conditions rather than how the person in the back might be doing.

That's great, except that we hardly did any medevac flights for broken legs, but we did a whole lot of heart patients. The patient would usually have to be fairly time-critical before the health care system could justify spending thousands of dollars on sending a turboprop aircraft on a trip just to collect them. So even though we didn't know the details of the patient until after the Captain accepted the trip, it was generally assumed that a long delay in pickup might affect the outcome for the patient. The dispatchers at MEDCOM had to report to their superiors too, and I imagine they felt some pressure also.

Now before I launch into my stories, I want to say that my experience with MEDCOM has been overwhelmingly positive. The people who work there are professionals and do a great job under difficult circumstances. Like anyone though, sometimes pressure causes us to do things we might not otherwise do.

I also want to say that in relating this next story, keep in mind that I wasn't actually there for the events described, so treat it like a rumor instead of fact.

My roommate's partner is a flight paramedic and she over here a while back. She mentioned that one of her airplane Captains, who was a new hire and fairly 'fresh' on the aircraft, had gotten a call from MEDCOM. MEDCOM was/is Ontario's centralized dispatch service for all medevac flights. They asked him to do a flight to a northern strip. MEDCOM had previously called another company to do the flight, and they had attempted to land at the destination airport to pick up the patient but hadn't been able to see the destination runway due to the low clouds and bad visibility. They tried twice but eventually had to return to their home base, unsuccessful. MEDCOM had promptly called the Captain for this paramedic's company and asked him if he would try to get into the airport. When the Captain mentioned that he knew another plane had tried to land and failed, MEDCOM said they figured that as this Captain was relatively inexeperienced, they thought he might be able to get in where the previous, experienced crew had failed.

Think about that for a second.

It reminded me of a story that I was there for...

I was in Timmins, Ontario in March 2004, flying the MU-2.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and it was only -5c or so, which is positively tropical for winter in northern Ontario. A hundred miles north, it was an entirely different situation; there were multiple low pressure regions over the northern edge of the province, bringing low cloud, high winds, snow, and most importantly, freezing rain.

We were at the Broadway cafe for breakfast with a group of other pilots from another medevac carrier when another pilot's phone rang. It was MEDCOM. They asked him to weather-check a trip up to Attawapiskat, then to Moosonee. We munched on eggs and bacon while the other Captain called Canada Flight Service and got a weather briefing.

It was as he suspected; lots of freezing rain was predicted along the entire route of flight, and there had already been a couple of pilot reports confirming the predictions.

Very few aircraft can handle heavy freezing rain - perhaps some military jets, but that's about it - not even large airliners will knowingly fly into an area of freezing rain. It can easily coat the flying surfaces of the aircraft too quickly for the on-board anti-icing systems to cope, screwing up the airflow over the wings and tail, and in extreme cases, causing the aircraft to stop flying. That's a bad thing if you happen to be airborne at the time.

Anyway, the captain called MEDCOM back and said that due to the freezing rain along the entire route of flight, it was unsafe to even attempt a trip at the moment, and that the conditions were expected to last at least another 18 hours. He said thanks but no thanks, and hung up.

We continued our breakfast and story-telling.

Five minutes later, my Captain's phone rang. It was MEDCOM, asking him if he wanted to do the same trip. My Captain's eyes widened.

"Did you call another company to do this trip already?"

muffled voice on his phone.

"And did they tell you it wasn't going to be doable for the next 18 hours due to heavy freezing rain?"

again, a muffled voice.

"So if it wasn't safe for them, what makes you think it would be safe for us?"

I didn't hear a reply.

"I'm declining the trip for the next 18 hours. If you still need us then, call us and we'll be happy to re-check the weather"

He hung up and we talked for a while about what might have happened if an unwary, eager Captain hadn't checked the route before accepting the trip. Then we left, walking to our cars and soaking up the sunshine.


Aviatrix said...

Geez! At what level are the MEDCOM people being trained that if one captain says the flight is undoable a younger, less experienced one might be able to do the trip?

I have only dealt with the medevac system through the filter of company dispatchers or through the paramedics actually on board. The paramedics weren't even interested in flying with us if I said, "we can get the patient to the hospital, but we'll be overnight at destination," (because of weather, duty time, etc.)

Aluwings said...

For a short summary of a medevac flight gone horribly wrong, check this wikipedia entry:
Martin Hartwell

This was one of the most famous search and rescue missions in Canadian aviation history. In fact at one point the search was called off, and it was only through determined lobbying by Mr. Hartwell's friends, that it was resumed.

A year or so later, Hartwell showed up at the flying school where I worked. He needed some dual time to brush up his skills and re-establish his proficiency so he could return to work.

I remember him as a rather shy man and capable pilot. Sadly, there were jokes made behind his back along the lines that I should carefully check his flight bag for salt and pepper shakers before agreeing to fly with him.

Until any of us has been in a situation like his, we have no idea what we would do to stay alive.