Air Beat Magazine: March - April 2003


March - April 2003

How to Set up and Enhance a Unit Training Program

Selecting the Best Possible Candidate Training of Tactical Flight Officers

A Combination of Training Regimens Enhances Operations

Don’t be a Crash Test Dummy 
How Emergency Procedures Training 
Saved My Life

"Nerve Agents for Dummies" 
What Every First Responder Should Know About A Nerve Gas Attack

How to Set up and Enhance a Unit Training Program

by Jim Di Giovanna, APSA Education Coordinator

Recently, while checking out the Members Only Discussion Area on the APSA web site, I read with horror the plight of one of our members who was having great difficulty convincing his management that proficiency training was not only necessary but vital to the safety and well being of him and his flight crews. The response from his management was appalling in that they believed, based on input, surprisingly enough from their insurance underwriter, that proficiency training "would not make that much difference". Therefore, a decision was made that funding would not be provided for factory proficiency or re-currency training. This is even more appalling when it was learned that the legal counsel for the agency strongly advised that the potential liability for NOT providing the funds for proficiency training placed their agency at extreme risk.

Fortunately, the sheriff of this agency intervened, thanks to the efforts of the OIC who was able to tap into the database information on the APSA web site and show his management the error of their ways.

It’s with this in mind that I write this article, offering some ideas for training at the unit level, providing recommendations that may enhance the training programs currently in place, and suggesting ideas for how to set up and maintain a successful program.


Unquestionably, management at all levels has the responsibility to provide their employees with viable and relevant training to ensure proper execution of the agency’s mission. In most cases, unit commanders are tasked with ensuring the proficiency of their employees through periodic audits and/or exams designed to demonstrate the proficiency of their personnel.
The unit’s training program should be designed to identify tasks, outline the conditions under which the tasks should be performed, and establish the standards by which the task shall be performed. Train to the standard, not individual preferences. A standardized training program is vital to the success of the unit.

Recurrent training is intended to develop, enhance, refresh and revalidate the skills of all assigned personnel, including the trainers and the entire training program. Occasionally seek validation from the outside.

Integrate ground and aviation safety into all aspects of the training program to ensure integration into unit operation.

Build on a structure that encourages continual professional development, utilizing a variety of training resources to include internal training, external training resources and self-study. The FAA offers free regional training and the Wings Program. All training is part of a continuation of professional aviation development.


Evaluate missions to be flown in support of your department or agency. This should drive your training program.

Determine the type and amount of training required to support mission needs and qualifications.
Aside from the philosophical issues involving training, other resources such as personnel, equipment and funding usually determine the level of training provided by the organization.

What level of pilot training can your agency afford to provide? How much responsibility does your agency want to assume? Do you have the personnel and resources to provide initial pilot training, transition and mission training or mission training only? Who will perform periodic check rides? Who will train your Tactical Flight Officers (TFOs)? Are your pilots former TFOs and qualified to train new TFOs? Can your civilian pilots train your sworn TFOs in airborne law enforcement tactics? Should the training be task or performance oriented or time limited? These are all questions that must be answered if the training program is to be viable and relevant.

You should also consider what training may be available from outside sources.

Outside training can be expensive and non-specific, however, many outside vendors will customize a syllabus to meet unit needs.

Some outside training is generic enough to provide basics with more specific training conducted at the unit.

Consider using outside resources to train in emergency procedures, specifically touchdown autorotations.

Factory transitions provide excellent aircraft specific training, however mission-oriented training is best accomplished at the unit with experienced instructors familiar with the unit mission and needs.


Often, new unit members are the most difficult to train due to the newness of the environment (adapting to airborne platform).

Selection of TFO candidates is critical to training and operational success. Look for candidates with strong background in patrol operations. Basic Air Crew Course, provided by APSA and others, provides an excellent source of fundamental description of duties and tactics.

For pilots, determine what resources are needed based on the level of training provided by the unit. Will the unit provide initial or primary? Transition? Mission? Advanced? How much will be accomplished by outside vendor or factory? What can your agency afford? What will your training staff requirements be?

Usually, commercial pilot standards provide a good place to start. Regardless of who provides training, a training plan is mandatory.

If using an outside vendor, insist on a syllabus that meets unit needs and develop a program that includes all anticipated pilot training and missions the unit expects to perform.

Structure the training program based on tasks suited to meet the basic needs of the unit, but establish standards of proficiency high enough to weed out mediocrity.

A solid training program allows progression based on demonstrated proficiency and the individual experience level of the pilot, not necessarily a basic flying hour requirement. Civilian or sworn pilots bring up separate training issues. If civilian, have they been provided law enforcement and TFO orientation training? If sworn, have they been trained as TFO’s?


Your program should include remedial steps in the event of learning difficulties, personality conflicts between instructor and student, or basic incompetence.

Every opportunity should be provided to allow the student to succeed. An instructor change, additional training, and possibly a shift change are all options to help the student get over a rough patch in training.

Critical to remedial training, however, is documentation. A detailed plan for improvement must be well structured, focusing on specific, not general, areas of deficiency with the intended goal of raising the individual’s level of performance to meet the unit standards. In these instances, the plan should have a deadline or time line for completion. It’s best to discuss the plan with an employee relations representative before attempting to implement. Failure on the part of the individual may require transfer, loss of pay and benefits, etc. All of these could become troublesome issues.


For the most part, there is a great deal of commonality among airborne law enforcement units. Therefore, seek assistance from others who have successful programs. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Adapt a program to meet your own unit’s needs.

Include proficiency evaluations phased at points in the training program to evaluate the trainee’s progress, and validate the program to ensure it’s meeting your needs.

Although we often focus on pilots and TFOs, a unit’s entire training program is the responsibility of the manager to develop and maintain and should, therefore, include all job classifications.

Ensure periodic evaluations are conducted and documented, and choose a frequency that best suits your needs, but make sure it’s no less than monthly. If the student is experiencing difficulty, perform weekly evaluations. Validate proficiency with some type of testing procedure, for example an oral or written exam or proficiency ride with different instructors. Also, check into availability of computer generated exams. Several vendors have programs available to customize and computerize your training program.

Recurrent training for TFOs is unit optional - usually refresher or new equipment training. Consider incorporating a written or computer based test annually. Advanced training should include thermal imagery as a mandatory requirement, considering recent case law and expert witness requirements. Specialized equipment should include some hands-on training, particularly in the newer and somewhat more complicated thermal imagery devices, video cameras and, especially, downlink equipment. These usually require extensive training to arrive at suitable proficiency. Don’t forget the TFOs in CRM and in-flight emergency training. They are critical members of the crew, especially in an emergency.

For pilots, allow for accelerated progress based on individual skill level, particularly prior military pilots. At LASO, our experience has ranged from 5-50 hours of flight time for primary training, which usually involves a turbine transition.

Advanced training may require another transition and should also focus on unit mission requirements, i.e., patrol, surveillance, mountain searches, etc. Much of our missions are high risk. Treat training as a high-risk mission!

It’s strongly recommended to include in your pilot training program an assignment with an experienced pilot for a minimum of two months (at least one month on days and one month on nights) prior to awarding pilot-in-command status. This locks in what was trained and provides ongoing mentoring. Several units are using this method with great success.

Recurrent pilot training should require a minimum of an annual check ride in each aircraft flown, semi-annual if possible. It’s recommended that at least one check ride annually include FAA biennial requirements and a written and oral exam. Proficiency in emergency procedures should be demonstrated every time a check ride is given. Advanced pilot training should include thermal imagery and other specialized equipment refresher, CRM, tactics, rescue, mountain, night vision goggles, and inadvertent IMC procedures. Let your mission determine your needs.


Regardless of the size or mission of the unit, one person (supervisor/senior officer) should be assigned the task of training oversight (Training Manager). This position is essential to ensure regulatory compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations, in addition to unit training tracking and verification. This person is responsible to track currency and special qualifications and schedules recurrent training and check rides.

The training manager also maintains individual and unit training records, monitors the progress of initial training for both pilots and TFOs, and will normally have the responsibility for scheduling mandatory unit training as well as unit optional training.

Selecting Instructor Pilots (CFI’s)

  • Instructors should be your most qualified pilots WHO CAN TEACH!
  • Instructors must be FAA Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs), which seems obvious, but I’ve seen instances where they were not.
  • Instructors must set the example. They should not only talk the talk, they must walk the walk. That means flying missions, too!
  • In addition to experience, instructors must consistently comply with unit and departmental policy. The last thing you want is an instructor who thinks the rules don’t apply to him/her.
    Very important: Instructors should have credibility with the troops. Recommend against selecting junior pilots as instructors just because they bought a CFI rating. Ideally, instructors should be volunteers, though some of your best candidates may need coaxing.
  • Instructors are an extension of management; live with it, it’s a fact of life. If your instructors aren’t willing to accept that role, don’t select them as instructors.
  • Unit size, level and extent of training performed will likely dictate number of trainers and instructors required.


Maintain accurate training files for all personnel. (They are always subject to review, especially after an accident). Training records should include all training received from initial to advanced, recurrent, outside vendor and agency or state mandated.

Only supervisors and training officers or instructors should have access to these training files. It’s a good idea for the unit commander to inspect the files periodically to ensure compliance with policy, the training syllabus and the accuracy of documentation.

Recommend conducting training meetings at least semiannually, wherein the unit commander attends, sets the training goals, and everyone ensures that training is being performed to standard. Consider forming a unit training standardization committee consisting of the unit commander, instructors and training manager.

Identify unit training goals and objectives for the upcoming year. Consider a long-range training plan that incorporates at least five year’s worth of progressive training.

Task-organize objectives, assigning specific instructors as action officers to plan and conduct unit training. Establish a training budget and determine outside training needs. Solicit training vendors, preferably more than one, and require bids.

Periodically review the plan to track progress and revalidate the training plan, especially long range plans.


These are merely a few recommendations and suggestions for setting-up and maintaining a successful training program. Each unit will have different mission requirements and training capabilities, but for the most part, the fundamental training requirements are pretty much the same.

Although training is historically considered a management responsibility, the program’s success or failure is shared across all lines of rank and file. Each unit member, regardless of rank or duty position, shares the responsibility of developing, monitoring, executing, evaluating, validating and participating in the unit’s training program. Provide input and feedback — get involved!

Selecting the Best Possible Candidate
Training of Tactical Flight Officers

by Jack H. Schonely,
Los Angeles Police Department 
Air Support Unit

One of the most difficult positions in law enforcement today is that of the Tactical Flight Officer. This job requires an individual with diverse skills and knowledge that even a very experienced patrol officer may not possess. An individual with a good sense of direction, excellent skills with maps, sound patrol tactics, and outstanding communication skills has a good chance of success in becoming a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO). But experience has shown us that when it comes to becoming a TFO, there are no guarantees.

It could be said that the only thing more difficult than doing the job of a TFO is selecting and training candidates who can do the job. Predicting who will succeed at this position is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. This article highlights some ideas and information that will assist airborne law enforcement units in choosing the best possible candidate, and then providing the training and evaluation to prepare them for the many challenges ahead.


A good place to start in the selection process is to set qualification standards for the position. A minimum amount of patrol experience is the best example of this. A TFO will be supporting patrol in a variety of functions on a daily basis and must be very familiar with the policies, procedures, and tactics of the officers on the ground. Past experience in these areas is vital to the success of a candidate. How much experience your unit requires prior to applying for this job should be customized for the size of your department.

An oral interview of each candidate is one of the tools your unit can use to evaluate each applicant. The interview should have numerous questions pertinent to the tasks of the TFO. Tactical knowledge must be tested during the oral by putting the candidate into scenarios that your air crews face each day. Pursuit policy and tactics are also a must during the interview for obvious reasons.

Navigation is a critical part of the TFOs job. This can be partially evaluated by a basic map book drill during the interview. Ask the applicant to find an address in the map book that your unit uses and describe how to get there from wherever you are.

A great deal of information can be gained during this drill. Not only will you see if the applicant knows how to use the map, but you will get to listen to their communication skills on the description of how to get there.

Persistence and determination might also be observed if the person is having difficulties with the drill. I have seen applicants throw there hands up into the air and give up on the drill after only a few minutes. Is that the type of TFO you would want above you on a call when the going gets tough?

After the interview process is complete and you have determined who the top candidates are, you should consider some sort of in-flight evaluation. Adapting to a cockpit environment is certainly not a given for anyone. This in-flight evaluation will allow your unit to observe the basic skills and abilities of an individual.

One issue that is observed regularly even with the most qualified applicants is air sickness. In most cases, the air sickness is short lived, but occasionally it is so severe that the candidate is forced to withdraw from the process. Usually, sense of direction and basic navigation skills will also be evident very quickly.

The combination of setting minimum experience standards, a thorough oral interview, and an in-flight evaluation should give your unit a good idea which applicants have what it takes to become a TFO. But it is very important to remember that there are no guarantees when it comes to predicting who will succeed at this job. Do not assume that an officer with years of experience and a reputation as a great street cop automatically translates to success as a TFO. Experienced officers with extensive tactical knowledge have failed in their quest to become a TFO because they could not navigate to the most basic locations, and once there, consistently didn’t know the northeast corner from the southwest corner.

Training can only go so far in the area of navigation before we realize that not every one has the same sense of direction inside of them. In speaking with air crews from all over the country, from departments large and small, I believe that when it comes to the TFO position "some people just have the knack for the job, and some don’t." This is a harsh reality of one of the most complex jobs in law enforcement.


You now have a pretty good idea on the qualifications of an individual when you bring them into your unit as a TFO. A training probationary period should definitely be considered because the real test is still ahead. Again, specific standards should be set, and they should be in writing so there is no question what is expected of the new TFO.

Many units have a list of tasks that will be carefully evaluated. The standards and tasks should go hand in hand and should have a time frame as to when the task is accomplished. For example, with regards to navigation, the trainee should be able to consistently navigate to within two houses of the target location by the end of the first month of training. The list of tasks should cover navigation, tactics, communication, use of mission equipment, aircrew coordination, and anything else that your unit believes is important. The importance of articulating what is expected of the trainee prior to the commencement of training cannot be stressed enough.

Another harsh reality of the TFO business is that many are not able to complete the training to a satisfactory standard. By making the standards clear, most trainees will recognize that they cannot do the job prior to having to be told. At the Los Angeles Police Depart-ment’s Air Support Division, only 40 to 50 percent of the officers that make it to the one-month loan successfully complete that loan.

Advising an outstanding police officer that he/she did not meet the required standard and will not be staying in Air Support is a difficult conversation, but by making the standards clear, the trainee understands and, in most cases, concurs with the decision.

The first step of actual training should be some sort of ground school. The instruction should include safety, radio equipment and usage, navigation, tactics, and communication. This is also the time to let the trainee know what the standards are. Try to accomplish as much as possible in this setting to avoid having to discuss basics while airborne. Many departments have a list of landmarks that are routinely used by air crews. The trainee should receive this list prior to ever stepping into an aircraft and be asked to memorize the locations.  This will pay dividends later if the TFO trainee does his/her homework.

Now is also a good time to cover some basics in mission equipment usage. Decide well ahead of time in your tasks and standards list how much is expected of a trainee with regards to mission equipment. Most trainees are going to have their hands full in the beginning without asking them to work the FLIR. There will be plenty of time for that sort of training and evaluation later.

In-Flight Training

Choosing a training pilot for the trainee is a critical decision. First and foremost, the pilot should have a great interest in training and want to be a part of this process. The pilot should be extremely familiar with all aspects of the TFO position. Patience is certainly a virtue as a TFO training pilot. Taking small steps and not expecting too much too fast is vital for success. The pilot should complete daily evaluations and debrief each flight with the trainee. These evaluations can be the most important tool in the training and evaluation process as long as they are done thoroughly.

The TFO evaluation form should be customized to your unit and what is expected from a trainee. There are many police agencies using some type of evaluation form. Grab the APSA directory and call around to see what different units are doing. After doing that, it will be easy to develop an evaluation form that is right for your unit.

An evaluation should include a list of required tasks with some sort of a numerical standard attached. In addition, there should be a large narrative area to discuss deficiencies and successes. The numerical standard is a good idea because it allows for evaluation of a long list of tasks very quickly. However, any task that has a low mark should always be addressed in narrative form. This will make life easier later, especially if the trainee is not going to make it.

Document what the trainee should do to improve the deficiency. The following is a very common example. On a numerical scale, the trainee scores a 3 out of a possible 10 in the area of navigation. The narrative might read "the trainee is consistently missing the target location by one or two streets. This is well below standard at this point of the training. The trainee is rushing the navigation process and must slow down and be much more systematic. Attention to detail in the map book is the key to success in navigation. Take the extra seconds to count the streets in the map book; this should translate into counting the streets correctly when looking out of the cockpit. The trainee must also continue to memorize major streets and landmarks which will help in navigation." This should make it very clear to anyone looking at the evaluation what the deficiency is and how to fix it. That is the goal of the evaluation form.

TFO Successfully Completes Training

This should be a proud day for any Tactical Flight Officer. It is an incredible accomplishment and should be recognized as such. But this is only the beginning of the learning process, not the end. TFOs should continue to fine tune basic skills and broaden their knowledge and experience level in the areas of tactics, air crew coordination, and mission equipment.

APSA has a great deal to offer to TFOs who are interested in always learning more. The best TFOs are the ones who always strive for perfection on each and every call. These same TFOs can be found at APSA conferences attending classes to learn more.

Today’s TFOs have one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in law enforcement. We need to select and train the best person for the job. As you can see, it is not an easy feat, but it can be done. When your unit is going through this process, always try to think back to when you were on the ground as a patrol officer in a difficult situation. What skills and abilities would you want that TFO over you to have?

A Combination of Training Regimens
Enhances Operations

by Jay Fuller, APSA Safety Coordinator

After receiving an emergency call, the police medevac pilot on night alert is airborne within minutes. She enters the geographic coordinates into the cockpit GPS and proceeds direct at 120KIAS. The moving map display details the exact location of the aircraft, it’s proximity to
the landing zone (LZ), and obstruction guidance.

The initial simulator and Cockpit Procedures Trainer (CPT) practice, the manufacturer’s ground school, plus semiannual written and practical testing she received, have made her totally familiar with the normal operation of her cockpit systems. Aviation unit management has insisted that installed equipment be used on all flights.

Her NVGs provide near daylight visual perspective under nighttime conditions. Initial NVG training with an experienced instructor, plus unit currency requirements for NVG use, insure that she is comfortable under the goggles and totally familiar with their problems and limitations.

At 30nm distance, she arrives on scene in only 15 minutes. She begins a slow orbit and receives a verbal briefing by FM radio about the LZ from the local fire company on scene. During this orbit, the NVGs allow her to visually see all obstructions where the unaided eye would see only blackness. Recurrent mission training involving aircrew and ground personnel guarantees a high level of familiarity with normal mission flow and procedures. Regular autorotation training has instilled the habit pattern of keeping her aircraft continuously in a position from which a safe, or at least survivable, forced landing could be achieved.

After making the landing and pickup, she is now on her way 40nm back to the hospital, GPS direct. At this time, she notices that the cloud layer has dropped below hilltops in the area. In order to avoid the reduced speed, circuitous routing and terrain proximity of scud running, she asks ATC (who she has been coordinating with on VHF radio all along) for a climb to hard IFR altitude. Annual simulator training, unit instrument training and currency requirements make this decision a "no brainer" under the circumstances.

Receiving clearance, she inputs the new altitude to her fully coupled autopilot and climbs into the soup. With "lifeguard" status, now under IFR in IMC, she accepts a radar vector direct to the hospital at normal cruise speed. The GPS moving map information confirms. She takes an IFR let down to visual conditions and lands for drop-off at the hospital heli-pad.

Technology is good, but training is better!

If you read my safety article in the September/October technology issue, you may remember the above hypothetical story. The statements that appear in italics emphasize the even more important role of training in the safety of a law enforcement aviation unit.

There are several types of training to consider.

Qualification training is the initial training that provides pilots with the required aeronautical skills and ratings required to perform their job descriptions.

Mission qualification training insures that aircrews have a good understanding of flight tasks relating to a law enforcement unit’s specific missions and any problem areas most likely to be encountered.

Currency training is that training conducted above and beyond normal flying to insure aircrews meet minimum experience requirements for flight time, landings or missions.

Recurrent training is refresher training on aircraft systems, infrequently used mission tasks, and abnormal or emergency aircraft procedures.

Initial qualification training may or may not be required in your unit, depending on whether the agency has a member population large enough that qualified pilots are readily available. Regardless, this aspect of aviation training is not of major concern to me as safety coordinator. High aircrew experience levels are nice, but it is no guarantee of aircraft or mission capability, no promise of safe flight operations, and certainly no replacement for mission qualification, currency and recurrent training.

Whether the pilot has 500 or 5,000 hours is far less important than their proficiency in an aircraft, mission and operating environment.

The most effective training programs are put together utilizing a combination of ground school, testing, procedures trainers, simulators and actual aircraft. Aircraft training should be conducted annually or semiannually. Mission or currency training should be conducted more regularly on a quarterly or even monthly basis.

Currency for normal flight tasks and routinely flown missions is the easiest. Normal operations provide much of what is required. Aircrews just have to remember to log everything so events are documented. Special training flights will only have to be generated when seasonal lulls or quiet periods prevent normal levels of activity.

For recurrent training and mission qualification training, sessions of ground and flight instruction will have to be generated with a designated instructor. If the flight instructor is a unit aircrew member, that individual should also do all training for the specific mission so his or her proficiency level is adequate to the task. Over and above this, for critical maneuvers such as the simulated loss of major aircraft systems in flight, proficiency has to be at a peak.

If the unit is flying single engine helicopters, then autorotations should be part of the training. If the unit is flying at night, then touchdown or power recovery night autorotations should be incorporated in the training as well. In reference to the aforementioned "peak proficiency", manufacturer’s test pilots may do as many as 100 autos in one week, so I highly recommend contract training for any serious hands-on aircraft work, ideally using their equipment. 
In-house training is routinely used in law enforcement aviation, even though there are risks to this practice. An unfortunately high percentage of law enforcement helicopter accidents have been attributed to training. If in-flight aircraft malfunction training is to be performed using unit instructors, it is essential that these instructors maintain the highest possible levels of proficiency.

Hopefully, I am preaching to the choir when I say all this to APSA members. The major problem comes in selling this to management. Training is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor and it has the potential of detracting from operational flying (aircraft time used up or aircrew not mission available due to currency requirements).

Further, our ground-based hierarchy typically confuses aircraft recurrent training with the non-aviation variety where the objective is to hone normally used skills. Proficiency in abnormal and emergency procedures, and mission essential tasks, is necessary for flying safety. Time and dollars spent on training are minor in comparison to the mission, equipment, and personnel losses avoided. Safety statistics bear this out repeatedly.

We can help ourselves out, somewhat. Since our hierarchy must provide the ante for any contract services or additional flying time, it’s only fair that the flying unit contribute time and effort as well. If we don’t consider training worth the effort, our bosses certainly won’t. Individual crewmembers can be assigned ground-training responsibilities for aircraft types or specific aircraft systems. Open book tests, with valid questions, administered annually by management, can provide valuable information and simultaneously "drag" an aircrew member through the flight manual.
In addition, lower-cost external training options are worth considering. Review the other articles and advertisements in Air Beat Magazine or attend the annual APSA National Conference. For aircraft training, there are a number of options including factory schools and contract instructors, as well as simulator training. Low cost visual training devices can be used in conjunction with your aircraft or other cockpit mockups. There are a variety of computer-based training aids for studying and testing aircraft systems knowledge.

Some of these resources might be reasonable for you. When it comes to safety, training is one of the keys to a successful operation.

Don’t be a Crash Test Dummy
How Emergency Procedures Training Saved My Life

by Ed Hrivnak

Last year, our Tacoma Mountain Rescue Unit sponsored a basic helicopter rescue class in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Department. I was serving as the safety officer at the heli-base. During the course of the day, we had trained over 40 people on landing zone safety and insertion and extraction techniques in the mountains of Eastern Washington. It was the last fuel load of the day and two teams were waiting to be recovered from remote landing zones.

The primary crew chief, Rob, asked me if I would crew for him on the last fuel load. We both wanted a change of pace from the long training day and, for me, some logged flight time would break up the routine of watching over the heli-base. I grabbed my restraint harness and flight gear and proceeded to do a quick walk around on the UH-1H Huey.

We normally fly with one crew chief. On this day, we had two because of the number of students. We had a crew briefing and soon the blades were turning. Copilot Bob was at the controls and gently pulled pitch to get us on our way. We were moving past 30 knots and I reached back to close the left troop door. I had just secured the door and was still looking behind at the heli-base when Ed, the Pilot in Command (PIC), called, "Low rpm, I have the aircraft."

I looked forward to the flight instruments, but could not see an obvious problem from my vantage point. Looking outside, all I could see were trees and mountains in front of us. The PIC executed a 180-degree turn due to the rising terrain. In the turn, I saw the RPM limit illuminate and called, " RPM limit." The PIC acknowledged the call.

Adrenaline has the perceived ability to slow down time, but it seemed like at this point we were airborne a long time before we actually hit the ground.

The aircraft was at a slow speed and low altitude flying downwind. We were descending into an open valley that bought us a little more time. The PIC initially said he was going to land back at the heli-base, but we could see several people standing in the middle of the landing zone.

Jeff, the secondary crew chief, blasted the Huey’s police siren. He also transmitted on the radio to clear the landing zone, but the folks on the ground were not moving fast enough. To make the LZ would require another 180-degree turn, which would also get us into the wind. The PIC stated he was having a hard time maintaining RPM, and the LZ would not be clear in time. He elected to hold what he had and continue straight ahead, downwind.

At this point, the crew prepared for a precautionary landing. All of us had just completed our crash and dunker training two months before. Emergency procedures (EP’s) were fresh in our mind. I made sure my visor was locked into place and scanned the cargo floor for loose objects. Jeff and I then opened both troop doors. We did not have time to pin the doors locked open. I tightened my seat belt and then disconnected my restraint harness from the floor ring. I looked to my right, and Jeff gave me a thumbs-up. The pilot asked if we were ready and I called, "secured." At some point while Bob (our copilot) was calling our engine and rotor RPM’s, he had also placed a mayday call.
I stuck my head out the door and looked ahead. The ground was coming up fast. There was an open field below us and a large tree line in front of us. I tucked my head back in and assumed the crash position. I never thought for a moment that we were going to die or even get injured. I had faith in the aircraft and the crew. There was only enough time to think about the emergency procedures.

The first impact caught me off guard because there was not much of an impact. I did not know at the time that the skids had collapsed and absorbed much of the first impact. We launched right back up into the air again. The impact felt so smooth to me that I though we had made a running landing. This is where I made my first BIG mistake. I looked up because I was so concerned about running into the tree line.

Now, I was out of the crash position for the second, violent, impact. My head snapped forward just like a crash test dummy in a car wreck. It went so far forward that it caused an avulsion fracture on the anterior portion of my C-4 vertebrae. My head then snapped back. My helmet impacted into the quick release fitting on the left shoulder strap of the restraint harness. The energy of my helmeted head transmitted though the fitting and separated the A/C joint in my left shoulder. The fitting also placed a half-inch long gouge in my flight helmet. I did not feel a thing.

Even though the event only lasted a few seconds, I remember every detail. The chin bubble shattered and the cockpit filled with fine particles of dirt and grass. The Huey rocked back and forth laterally as the main rotor sliced through part of the tail boom. I had to hang on to the web seat to keep from being thrown around. The engine was still running and each crew-member checked in that they were alright. I looked across to Jeff, by the right troop door, and saw someone running towards our aircraft. My next mistake.

I undid my seatbelt and exited the aircraft to stop the approaching person.

I did not ask the PIC for permission to depart the aircraft. Jeff told me to get back in. I did not realize how close my head was to the main rotor. The skids were gone and the Huey was resting on its belly. I stood there and waited for the blades to slow and the rocking motion to subside. I then came around the front of the Huey and motioned to the good samaritan running toward us not to come any closer. I grabbed the fire bottle from the pilot side and walked around the left side of the aircraft, hugging close to the fuselage. There was no post-crash fire. I told the crew that the engine was still running. The pilot shut down the engine and instructed me to disconnect the battery. I did so, and we waited for the blades to finally stop.

We sat there for a bit and looked at each other. The four of us were all smiles. Yes, the Huey was in bad shape but we were all walking and talking. Any landing you walk away from is a good one, as the saying goes.

The adrenaline started to wear off and I noticed that my neck and left shoulder started to hurt. I was probably hurting the whole time, but I was too hyped-up to notice. Our mountain rescue team was on scene within minutes and taking care of us and securing the crash site.

We were required to have physicals, and I knew I had a real problem when I could not get my flight suit off. With some help, I was able to expose my shoulder. A big lump and discoloration was enough to get a ride to the local emergency room. X-ray’s confirmed that I had real injuries and not just a simple muscle strain. I considered my injuries minor, yet they have had lasting effects. I missed two weeks of work and had six weeks of physical therapy. To this day, I still have occasional neck and shoulder pain. I’m back on flight status, but have to be careful with my wounded body parts. They remind me from time to time that they are injured.

I learned some very valuable lessons from this crash that I want to pass on to fellow aircrew.

  1. Remain seated and in the crash position until the aircraft comes to a complete stop. 
    My shoulder reminds me of this lesson all the time.
  2. Do not depart the aircraft until everything comes to a complete stop. I had no idea that the skids were gone, nor did I know how close my head was to the main rotor when I departed the aircraft. (Lesson 2 may have to be modified if there is a post-crash fire.)
  3. Keep the landing zone clear during helicopter operations. If the primary heli-base did not have people on it, maybe we could have turned into the wind and had a softer landing. A ten-knot headwind is better than a ten-knot tailwind.
  4. Train in emergency procedures on a regular basis. This includes discussing and practicing post-crash procedures. Our crew had current EP training. This training was obvious from the time the EP started. Everyone did their job well, both while we were in the air and on the ground. I just made two stupid mistakes. Lessons learned the hard way.

"Nerve Agents for Dummies" 
What Every First Responder Should Know 
About A Nerve Gas Attack

By Edward Burris
Texas Dept of Public Safety

Vx? Sarin? Tabun? Gd????? What is this stuff?

Nerve agents are a type of poison that impedes the central nervous system. Essentially, when your brain sends signals to the rest of your body to move, or do something as simple as "breathe"...the signal cannot get through. (The actual pathology of what is happening is much more complex.) Death is the result of a high enough dose. It does not take much.

To simplify things, we can lump all nerve agents together. You do not need to memorize the names or two letter identifiers of the different nerve agents. No matter what you call them, they will kill you just as dead. For the level of training needed to be effective as an airborne first responder to an incident, you just need to know enough to look for the clues to tell you what is going on below you.

The basics: Some nerve agents are odorless. But, from a practical standpoint, if you can smell the ones that do produce odor, it is probably too late. So focus on the symptoms the victims are exhibiting. The symptoms of nerve agent exposure include runny nose, blurred vision, chest tightness, headache, dizziness, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, convulsions and sometimes death. Initial onset of the symptoms is almost immediate, seconds to minutes.

When you arrive at the scene, your aircraft will probably have the best vantage point to survey the incident. You will likely be monitoring a collage of reports from responders on the ground. Some may become casualties as they speak. Needless to say, go high and move up wind. Weaponized nerve agents are heavier then air so as long as you do not descend into the area that is affected, you are relatively safe. It would not make a lot of sense to deploy a weapon that goes up instead of down if you want to maximize casualties. (Note, a HAZMAT incident is a different circumstance.)

Some nerve agents were originally developed as insecticides. If it is a large-scale attack, you will see similarities from your vantage point in the air to looking down on a nest of insects that has just been sprayed. Chances are, if it is a terrorist attack, there will be lots of victims.

Some agents disperse rapidly. Some do not. Stay away. Rotor wash insinuated into a contaminated area will only help out the bad guys. You will contaminate your ship, yourself, and blow droplets off the ground and onto anyone near your ship. If you are not flying in protective gear, this is where you become a casualty.

The severity of the symptoms will vary depending on the concentration of the agent, method of absorption (inhalation, ingestion, or absorbed through the skin) and duration of exposure. In a large group of people, expect symptoms to vary from mild to acute.

Because pilots are always cognizant of the wind conditions, reporting the wind direction and speed with some degree of precision is an easy but critical report for you to make. Reporting the apparent size of the incident based on casualties observed is information you can forward that will likely save lives.

You will be in a unique position to give the first assessment as fear and chaos rein beneath you. If you can spot the source and position of the contamination with out endangering yourself, do so. It may be readily apparent. A rough Lat Long would be nice. However most terrorist dissemination devices are designed to leave very little signature.

Often times the only way to determine the point of origin is by detailed "mapping" of casualties on the ground to include birds and other animals. So remember: stay high, stay upwind, and stay alive. Don't get dirty. An aggressive pilot might very quickly put himself and his ship in danger while attempting to determine the point of origin or by extracting victims that have been moved upwind.

Indeed, even putting a contaminated victim in your helicopter for transport might make you a casualty through a phenomenon called "off gassing". If you as a pilot begin to feel the first symptoms of nerve agent exposure, put the aircraft on the ground immediately and without hesitation. The onset of motor control degradation is rapid.

How high is safe? It is terrain and weather dependent, but one thousand feet ought to do it. However, in an urban area with high-rise buildings, channelized wind currents can push the vapors up into the air above the buildings. Err to the side of "too high".

Meanwhile, back at the Emergency Operation Center, the Critical Incident Management people are trying to build a "plume" model so they can safely react, respond to and evacuate the proper areas. The most accurate initial information will probably come from you. The "plume" is a function of the amount of agent the type of agent, the source location, and prevailing wind conditions. Inaccurate information means inaccurate response. That means more casualties.

Who is better suited to report this? A pilot who knows the wind almost intuitively and has good observation on the scene; or a man on the ground in the eddies and burbles of wind passing through an urban area with a limited view of the scene who may be watching people becoming casualties around him? Your vantage point and relative safety will probably allow you to maintain greater objectivity.

If you have a video camera, "Roll film"! The tape may be instrumental in the lengthy decontamination process that comes later or in piecing together "what happened". One picture is worth a thousand words.

Treatment for nerve agents: 
According to the Centers for Disease Control web site, "Treatment includes atropine, pralidoxime chloride, and diazepam; ventilation to support respiratory function; and supportive care. Using appropriate personal protective equipment, remove, bag, and seal contaminated clothing. Decontaminate skin by washing it with large amounts of soap and water."

This treatment is fairly universal for all nerve agents. Most agents can be absorbed through the skin so removal of contaminated clothing and washing the skin is important. Some agents are "persistent." They may not dissipate rapidly and may be in the form of droplets rather then aerosol. Myth: nerve gas is not really "gas"; it is an aerosol that emits vapors.

Until washed off, your body will continue to absorb the agent and you and those around you may continue to be exposed to vapors even if the contaminate does not penetrate through your clothing to reach your skin. Clothing that has been contaminated will remain a hazard to you and others you may brush up against. Your aircraft should be examined and decontaminated also by a trained team post incident.

Here is the really bad news: It is important to understand that if the aircraft has been contaminated by an acute exposure to a liquid or vaporized agent, the most effective method of decontamination will be to incinerate the aircraft under controlled conditions. (If the pilot is not in protective gear, the contamination will rapidly send him into uncontrollable convulsions followed by a crash.)

Military aircraft decontamination protocols require a level of expertise and equipment that are unavailable to most civil law enforcement departments. The nerve agent will bond to paint, wheels, upholstery, electrical wiring, control cables and every part of the aircraft. Once bonded, it will not wash off, but leaks out again slowly over a period of time. The amount of time is classified, but I am told it is longer then you think.

Your helicopter becomes a flying toxic waste dump. The reason decontamination is normally not an option is because the nature of the chemicals used for decontamination will ruin most of the parts in an aircraft. Once it has bonded, soap and water will not wash it off. In "laymen's terms", imagine if the only way to clean the wiring and computer chips in your equipment is to rinse it in a concentrated acid.

Some of us were and are trained to fly in what the military calls MOPP4. But understand this, if someone talks you into donning a suit and a mask and flying into the site for an absolute urgent and mandatory mission;... even if your Medal of Valor is not posthumous, you will have defacto destroyed your helicopter. So when you do your risk assessment for the mission, start with the baseline: "One helicopter totaled."

If you or your crew start suffering symptoms, you will require immediate first aid. If there is not a "decontamination team" on site yet, look for guys wearing camouflage and holding M16s.

Military personnel are issued and trained in atropine auto injectors. If there are National Guardsmen or personnel responding from a near by military base, they will likely be equipped with these. The auto injector is a spring-loaded device that automatically injects the atropine through clothes and into the system. It is held against the thigh and the needle automatically pushed ("fired" is the word I prefer) into the muscle and held there for 10 seconds. It takes up to 15 minutes for the antidote to take effect.

The atropine is an attempt to "stabilize" your condition. If it works, the symptoms you are already experiencing will normally remain. You will probably stop getting worse, but you will not get better until the agent wears off. Atropine, itself, is pretty rough on your body. We have probably all seen on TV when someone is dead on the operating table and the doctor sticks the big needle in his heart to get it running again?... that is atropine.

The good news is that if you survive the nerve agent, and survive the antidote, most people make full recovery. Most long-term effects are secondary, such as brain damage caused by oxygen starvation to the brain during periods of respiratory failure before getting medical care.

Training is the key to survival. If there is a military, guard or reserve unit in your vicinity, it would behoove you to become familiar with their equipment. Most units would be more then happy to provide your department a little training. And 15 minutes of formal instruction in a nice calm classroom environment, including some hands on time with the actual equipment could save lives (including yours) if you are ever find yourself in a situation where people are deploying with that equipment. Do you really want to be reading the instructions on the side of an atropine injector as your chest tightens and your vision blurs?

If the day ever comes when you find yourself responding to this type of incident, do not become a casualty yourself. You are the eyes of the Emergency Operations Center in that critical first hour. The information you provide will likely save more lives then any other effort by a responding unit. Stay high, stay upwind, and stay alive. Aggressive flying will make you a casualty and endanger the many lives that are depending on you for accurate information.