CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 JAY BOURGEOIS
Headquarters, Headquarters Company
1-244th Aviation Battalion
Louisiana Army National Guard
Most of my flying for the past 30 years as a reservist and civilian pilot has been under visual meteorological conditions. Therefore, I am accustomed to flying with most of my attention focused outside the cockpit. The civilian flight department I work for supports workers in the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Flying in the Gulf is not too much different from flying helicopters in other places, except for the traffic congestion that occasionally comes into play — and all the water.
Most pilots look at the Gulf as a big emergency landing area since the helicopters are equipped with emergency floats that will support the aircraft in the water. But, when the seas are too high, it is not such a comforting prospect to ditch. In 2010, three helicopters were forced to land in the Gulf; however, all three were landed well enough so as not to be classified as an accident by the Federal Aviation Administration. (Two had power issues and one a tail-rotor issue.)
Several years ago, my company purchased new aircraft to replace our older twin-engine helicopters. The new aircraft were technologically advanced and equipped with numerous computers. The instrument panel has all the gadgets we dream of as pilots. This gear includes auto-pilot, dual VOR receivers, dual GPS receivers, weather radar and a SkyWatch traffic avoidance system that sounds a warning when another aircraft is within one-half mile. The new rides are also certified for single-pilot instrument flight rules flight. After flying for so many years in VFR aircraft without much instrumentation, these new aircraft were a welcome change. But they were still a change.
I have read in the FAA’s Airman’s Information Manual how to scan for other aircraft: dividing attention between looking at the instrument panel and scanning outside for traffic. I have read about what’s called empty field myopia, how to not just stare, but to focus on something as you scan. I have always tried in the past to think about these things as I am flying, looking for traffic. It had become my standing procedure every day. On hazier days, I would reference the artificial horizon more often, but still keep my traffic scan going.
The new aircraft have more items inside that can suck your attention. The company has us still flying VFR, but plans to eventually get us into a single-pilot IFR program. So, occasionally we will fly an approach in VFR conditions as we return to base at the end of the day. The auto-pilot does it all; we just have to program the machine.
One day not long ago, I was flying out-bound, doing a crew change. I had climbed to a higher altitude since it was a clear day, the visibility was excellent and the winds were good. I had programmed the auto-pilot for a descent to our platform and was just playing with the electronics and relying on the SkyWatch system to alert me of any traffic, as I have been doing more and more since I have all these new gadgets to play with. You know what happens next.
My front-seat passenger and I hear, “TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!” (It was the SkyWatch system telling me, “Look outside, stupid!”) We looked up to see a good, close view of a Sikorsky S-92 (a very large helicopter) pass over us. The S-92 was north-bound at 3,000 feet since they usually fly IFR. We missed each other by about 750 feet. It was mostly the fact that we came close without my seeing him that got to me. I still gladly fly our new helicopters, but I have re-doubled my efforts to not get so distracted with all the new toys. Now, I just look outside more!