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Editor’s Note: Jack Schonely recently retired after a 31-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), including 18 years with its Air Support Division (ASD) as a tactical flight officer, pilot, and flight instructor. This is the third article in a series in which he and the ASD’s former safety officer, Mark Bolanos, recall some experiences that caused Schonely to evolve his personal approach to risk management. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.
Jack Schonely: We can all agree that the internet is a very powerful influence on modern life. YouTube, specifically, has received many trillions of hits with some videos getting billions of views. So, it didn’t surprise me to receive a request from a supervisor to organize a “golf ball drop” from a helicopter as a fundraiser.
If you go to YouTube right now, you will find countless videos of helicopter crews flying a wide variety of airframes and dropping hundreds of golf balls onto golf courses for a “closest to the pin” contest. One of the videos shows golf balls in a Bambi Bucket before the drop, which I thought was very creative.
At these fundraising events, participants buy the golf ball, which is identified with a number painted on the side. They can purchase multiple balls, to increase the chance that theirs will land closest to the flag after it is dropped from a hovering helicopter along with hundreds or even a thousand numbered balls.
There’s a great visual effect and lots of excitement and the winner often receives hundreds of dollars, while the fundraising cause can raise thousands.
The supervisor advised me and the safety officer, co-author of this article, to start preparing for the golf tournament which was only a couple of weeks away. He also told us that the golf ball drop had been “approved from up the chain of command.” We both smiled at that statement, since none of the people in “the chain” knew anything about operating a helicopter, much less doing it safely.
I remember my initial conversation with Mark about the drop. We agreed it could raise lots of money for a unit within our department, but our job was to determine if we could accomplish this mission safely.
We had to put aside our personal feelings of wanting to assist our fellow officers and focus on safety. We had done that before, and we were confident we could do it again.
Over the years, we had learned to say no even when it caused disappointment or anger, but we had also completed many missions after mitigating risk to an acceptable level. We both knew we had a lot of work to do.
Mark Bolanos: Here we go again!
We were told this shouldn’t be a big deal. We were “just” going to drop a bunch of golf balls — nothing to it! Again, management was accepting a mission without analyzing the risks.
Based on experience and training, we knew nothing was ever as easy as it sounded. As Jack and I left the office, we shook our heads.
Over the years, our individual safety and risk management paradigm had evolved. Based on this evolution, I knew I could count on Jack to approach this mission like any other. We were going to do our best to identify hazards and manage risk to an acceptable level. Jack and I had come a long way since our exchange on the flight deck a few years earlier (see p.44, Vertical 911, Spring 2018).
Our objective was to ensure we could accomplish the mission with a maximum likelihood of success and a minimum likelihood of loss. We knew we had to complete a comprehensive risk analysis before we dropped the golf balls.
Although we had never completed a golf ball drop, we drew on our experience, training, and education to identify potential hazards. Also, we found plenty of video examples showing us how we didn’t want the task to go.
Regardless of how “easy” management made it sound, our risk management process did not change. We set out to manage risk by starting with the five steps of hazard identification:
- Identify the hazards
- Assess the hazards
- Make risk decisions
- Implement controls
During each phase of the mission, we attempted to identify all hazards, starting with understanding the purpose of the flight (mission), the people involved (man), equipment (machine), environment (medium), and policies, procedures, and regulations (management).
The first drop was a big success. Unfortunately, once word got out, “golf ball drop” requests for great causes started coming in from many department entities, and even from outside the department.
Some of the points we considered:
- Purpose of the operation
- Type of mission (i.e. charity event)
- Crew configuration
- Crew selection
- Crew performance
- Personal factors
- Aircraft selection
- Door configuration
- Crew seating configuration
- Maintenance time
- Weight and balance
- Height-velocity diagram
- Fall protection
- Seat cushions
- Suitability, barriers, approach, terrain, take-off (SBATT)
We tried to identify all potential hazards: everything from the method of dropping the balls, whether from bags or containers; to the location for picking up the balls, limits on the number of balls, and ground site surveys. We also included other pilots and tactical flight officers (TFOs) in brainstorming sessions, because we wanted to get it right.
Regardless of the number of drops we had done, our risk management process stayed the same. We analyzed each event as if it was the first. We knew each one had its own unique set of hazards and risks and each time we incorporated what we had learned from the previous drop.
Unfortunately, the fourth and last “golf ball drop” didn’t go as we planned, and it nearly cost us.
Schonely: The fourth and last golf ball drop was requested by an LAPD supervisor for a school fundraiser. The previous three drops were directly related to department personnel and the funds raised benefited very worthy causes within the LAPD. We immediately voiced concerns about flying to a golf course outside the city for a cause that had no connection to the LAPD.
We were simply told, “it has been approved up the chain and we should see if we can do it safely.” Mark and I began work on the site survey, treating it as though it was the first ball drop. We completed a thorough reconnaissance from the air and on the ground, driving up and down the fairway in a golf cart looking for hazards.
After completing a risk analysis, we determined that the golf ball drop could be done safely. When we presented our analysis to our supervisor, we again stated our case for not doing this golf ball drop because it did not look good for a department helicopter, with a crew of three, to travel outside the city to participate in a school fundraiser. The reply was “Understood. Schedule the drop.”
This was the second golf ball drop of the day. It was getting late as we loaded the bags of numbered golf balls into our department’s Airbus AS350 AStar. We were shut down at a neighboring agency’s helipad only a few miles from the drop location where we waited for the call from Mark, the safety officer on the ground at the golf course.
I was pilot for this drop, as well as the previous three, and I had an experienced co-pilot and TFO with me. The day was perfect: beautiful blue sky, zero wind, experienced crew and safety officer at the drop site.
We spoke with Mark via cell phone a couple of times, to verify everything was good at the golf course. The only issue was an unanticipated delay in the drop time. No problem; we were in the aircraft and ready to press the start button.
After a significant wait, we received the call. We buckled up, put on our helmets, started up and navigated the short flight to the golf course. I completed one high recon pass prior to setting up for our approach down the fairway to the drop point.
People were watching from the clubhouse and everything was going well, until I got to my hover point. The sun was very low in the western sky and directly in my eyes. I had descended out of the shade to my hover point and could no longer see the clubhouse or the drop point. I was forced to look out my side windows.
Now at a hover, I immediately advised my crew that I was unable to see the drop point, which was about 25 yards ahead of us. Our crew resource management (CRM) training kicked into high gear. I asked my crew to verify if I could bring my tail left with a right pedal turn and then side-taxi to the drop point. They confirmed that I had enough space to do exactly that and agreed that making the turn and slowly side-taxiing was acceptable and could be done safely.
I completed the pedal turn and instantly gained relief from the direct sunlight. We completed the golf ball drop and departed the fairway the same way we had come in, as planned. Teamwork allowed us to complete the drop safely.
Later, Mark and I debriefed. We kicked ourselves for missing a simple element of our risk analysis and recon — the ground recon should have been done at the same time of day as the planned drop.
If we had done that, we could have clearly seen the issue with the sun being directly in the eyes of the crew at the drop point. Missing something so simple almost caused us to abort the mission.
It was a great lesson that we would use on future mission requests. However, this would be the last ball drop for LAPD Air Support.
About a week later, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times included a photo of us dropping those golf balls for the school fundraiser, and a long story ridiculing us for doing it.
The Times frequently criticizes my department for a wide variety of things, and it now added golf ball drops to the list. The photographer was hiding in a tree line, waiting for our very well publicized drop.
There was lots of activity at Air Support that day, and it was clear that golf ball drops were now off the list of flying activities. Sometimes the concerns you may have about accepting a mission have little or nothing to do with safety.
“Can we do it?” and “Should we do it?” are two questions that must be seriously considered before accepting a mission. This has been a common theme in our three flight risk analysis tool (FRAT) articles.
We learned things during our golf ball drop experiences that made each one safer and more efficient than the previous drop.
Thinking about the environment at the time of the mission was our biggest takeaway, but we also saw first-hand that the “image” of what we are going to do must be considered beyond the FRAT.