Chopping out the cowboys in aerial game

No shortcuts in the skies, aviation commentators warn

Safe Hands
A typical working day for a Three Rivers Helicopters pilot. Picture - Adam Wren.

A typical working day for a Three Rivers Helicopters pilot. Picture - Adam Wren.

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Aerial mustering, particularly with helicopters, has grown at a rapid rate in recent years and employers say knowledge of stock movements is a key to keeping pilots safe.

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Aerial mustering, particularly with helicopters, has grown at a rapid rate in recent years - about 600 pilots are operating a fleet of R22s most days of the week in an area between St George in southern Queensland and Esperance in Western Australia.

According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, aerial work increased significantly over a period between 2008 and 2017, with aerial mustering acknowledged as the major contributor to the jump.

While aerial work activities, along with recreational aviation, survey and photography and several other categories all showed an increase in accidents reported during that time, the ATSB stated the fatal accident rate for helicopters conducting aerial work decreased significantly.

Townsville Helicopters flight instructor Tim Tanner said anyone who signed up for a licence with Top Gun-style ambitions would very soon come down to earth when three months of challenging theory was put in front of them.

"We find people have usually done their research - they know what they need to do."

After five to six months full-time work for a commercial licence, including over 100 hours of aerial operations, then sitting for a low-level rating and mustering endorsement, graduates are ready for work.

One of those employing them is Tambo's Brian Philp of Three Rivers Helicopters who flew another 400 hours with his newest recruit before letting him work unsupervised in a $500,000 machine.

That mentorship is coupled with a strict adherence to preparation for the job at hand, plus maintenance.

Lining up lines

"We have a briefing every morning before the jobs of the day, talking about where we'll be flying and where the powerlines will be in the paddocks," he said.

He's taken to putting flags on powerlines where they cross fence lines, saying they were one of his main fears and something that got forgotten when there were a number of issues to contend with while mustering.

"And they're hard to see," he added.

As far as maintenance goes, Brian is vehement about the need to send his machines south to an engineer when their hours are up.

"We don't work on them, absolutely not," he said. "I'm a pilot and they're expert at their job."

He believed pilot error could be managed in a few ways, mainly by having a close working relationship with all on the team so that changes in their manner could be picked up.

"A lot of it comes down to tiredness, which you have to manage - if someone's got an issue in their personal life it will affect their performance."

Another piece of the puzzle, as far as Brian was concerned, was employing people who were familiar with stock work because they would know how stock would react, and be in the right places rather than manoeuvring unexpectedly.

That was also a vital factor for the Australian Helicopter Industry Association's John Armstrong, speaking from his base in the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory.

Liking low stress

Exposing pilots to low-stress mustering so they weren't pushing cows into a pandemonium was a simple way of making things safer, in his eyes.

His organisation was concentrating on young private pilots on the fringe, saying companies generally had their staff up to speed under Air Operator Certificate regulations.

Mentoring was once again the key, passing on tips such as how to approach an animal under trees without compromising safety or getting into a vortex ring state.

"We're well on the way to getting a fair number up to speed," he said. "We're working on the theory that the more exposure someone has to different operators, the more tricks they'll pick up."

The body would be keen to see training standardised to eliminate the differences in knowledge shown by new licencees, and new regulations written in a much less complex way.

"They're verbose and confusing - one part is 1200 pages long, and young pilots can't get their heads around them," he said. "New Zealand's regulations are a tenth the size of ours and they seem quite safe."

No shortcuts in the skies

Shortcuts, complacency and risk-taking have no place in flying in general but are especially dangerous in the specialised flying atmosphere that is aerial mustering.

These were the main pitfalls that would bring a pilot down, literally, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's corporate communications manager Peter Gibson.

The body tasked with safety in Australia's skies had three or four succinct messages for those in the industry, starting with not succumbing to the temptation to muster unless one had all the relevant qualifications and licences.

"There's a whole science to reading animals and the landscape that goes above and beyond regular regulations," he said. "You really do need the extra training."

Second was making sure the aircraft was maintained to the required standards, part of which meant not being tempted to under-record hours.

"Pilots are already manoeuvring in difficult conditions - heat and dust much of the time - shortcutting on when inspections happen isn't wise."

Mr Gibson said it was also important for pilots to be physically fit to fly, saying tiredness and dehydration put them more at risk in high level flying situations.

"As for the number of hours flying, it's a matter of pilots knowing their limitations," he said. "And if you don't have a night rating, stop when it gets dark."

Much of this was commonsense he said, and employing defensive flying techniques, such as finding the powerlines and being aware of weather changes.

"Expect the unexpected."

Discussing how to improve survival rates, he said the answer to better safety was not always more regulation, which he said could make things more complex for pilots.

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