Safety the focus at 6th International Powerline Symposium

More than 90 operators, brokers, and utility companies came together for the sixth annual International Powerline Symposium in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 21, 2019. Sponsored by Airbus, the gathering is designed to foster conversations, ideas, and understanding that lead to stronger, safer operations.

Pictured are the panelists of the joint operator and utility panel on twin-engine human external cargo. From left: Mark Schoenrank, Timothy Hansen, Hank Miller and Walter Heneghan. Jen Boyer Photo
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“Our overall purpose for this symposium has always been to raise awareness and understanding of increasing safety,” said Mark Conroe, senior director of government and specialty sales at Airbus, who moderated the symposium. “When operators, power companies, and even regulators can come together in the same room to share their needs, perspectives, and the economics of the powerline business, they can work together to make operations safer.”

A number of valuable conversations and presentations ensued between operators and power companies.

Keynote speaker Hank Miller, director of aviation for Entergy, a power company serving the Southern U.S., set the tone for the symposium.

“I want to challenge everyone here to recreate how you look at safety,” he said. “Rather than ask, ‘is it safe?’ instead ask, ‘how can we manage our risk? What is our risk appetite?’ ”

Sharing an understanding that often the customer wants the work as cheaply as possible, and wants it done yesterday, Miller encouraged operators and power companies to work together early on in project planning to become partners in risk management. “Accident rates decrease when utilities, end users, construction companies, and operators work together on taking responsibility for their individual parts of the project to reduce risk and increase safety.”

He encouraged all stakeholders to lead by example with integrity. This, he said, is achieved through quality, innovation, best practices, a customer-centric approach, and hiring not only for technical skill, but also positive cultural attributes – integrity, honesty, and customer service.

“Don’t be OK with just OK,” Miller emphasized. “As an industry, we’re good at putting out fires, but we’re not so good at figuring out how the fire started. Look at processes and outcomes, how we’re causing it and what we’re doing to prevent it, to fully understand why we do what we do. Only then can we really innovate and change for the better.”

Airbus vice president of oil and gas Régis Magnac followed Miller, taking a closer look at the cost of safety. He began with a sobering statistic: one out of three helicopter accidents around the world is fatal. However, for the powerline patrol, repair, and construction industry when working around cables, that statistic is one out of every two.

Magnac argued despite these statistics, helicopters make powerline work safer and more efficient. More work is done faster with less people than a ground-based operation, reducing overall risk exposure when done properly with the right people.

Hank Miller, director of aviation at Entergy, was a keynote speaker at the symposium. Jen Boyer Photo

“It’s not just about the technology; it’s about investment in the crew: pilot and lineman,” Magnac said. “I don’t believe it’s about a pilot flying a lineman. It’s about being a crew, crew resource management, and joining the two worlds.”

He encouraged operators and end users to work together to talk through and plan operations with all those working on a project, pilots included. This helps every worker achieve a complete understanding of the job and contribute to identifying the best way to do it safely, he said.

Helicopter industry safety and training expert Terry Palmer, president of Pilot Landing LLC, gave two separate presentations. In her first, she focused on the importance of regular training to maintain a safe operation.

“It’s very simple. You’re going to be safer operating equipment if you’re comfortable using it,” she told attendees. “That’s more than competency. It’s about proficiency. Proficiency maintains safety.”

Palmer highlighted the increased number of simulators, simulator locations, and flight training devices on the market that further reduce the cost of pilot training. She encouraged operators to look into utilizing them, even dry leasing, to not only go over emergency procedures, but for new technology.

“The aircraft we fly today are not anything like the aircraft we were flying 20 years ago,” she said. “Today’s aircraft are mostly drone, there is so much automation and technology. We spend a lot of time on the basics – emergency procedures, company procedures, and the like. We’re not so good at maintaining proficiency on the technology. When you’re comfortable using that technology, you’ll use it, and be safer as a result. Simulators are a very good and economical way to become comfortable, confident, and proficient in technology and practice perishable skills – IFR [instrument flight rules], NVG [night vision goggles], inadvertent IMC [instrument meteorological conditions].”

Later, Palmer gave a punchy presentation on human factors, emphasizing “there are no new cause of accidents, just new people making the same mistakes.” She underscored the importance of building human factors awareness into every day, not just annual and semi-annual training. This is easily achieved, she said, through focusing on the five keys to safety throughout daily operations – communication, teamwork, situational awareness, judgement, and decision-making.

Marc Schoenrank, vice president of safety and quality at Universal Helicopters, shared the value of competency-based training to develop internal training programs. “We’ve lost the concept of mastery of skills,” he told attendees. “Competency-based training can bring us back to that.”

Schoenrank recommended training that begins with observation and determination of a student’s skill level, then through working individually with the student to help build on the skills through realistic scenario-based training. “Teach the whole job or operation, throwing in curveballs and emergency procedures,” he said. “Track progress toward mastery of skills rather than checking a box ‘pass’ or ‘fail.’ ”

A very lively discussion took place during the joint operator and utility panel on twin-engine human external cargo (HEC). Universal Helicopters’ Schoenrank, Firehawk Helicopters chief pilot and safety officer Timothy Hansen, Entergy’s Hank Miller, and Hydro One director of helicopter services Walter Heneghan offered thoughts and arguments on whether or not twin-engine aircraft should be required for HEC operations. They then opened the floor to comments.

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Participants were passionately divided on the topic, with those in favor of twin-engine requirements citing increased safety, reduced risk, and the value of redundancy. Overall, those in favor cautioned against a “we’ve done it safely with a single engine this long” mentality and putting too much weight on engine failure data, since these numbers do not include fuel system and other failures that lead to a flame out.

Helicopter industry safety and training expert Terry Palmer, president of Pilot Landing LLC, gave two separate presentations at the symposium. Jen Boyer Photo

Those in opposition to twin-engine requirements for HEC cited job cost, economics of operating a twin-engine year-round to keep it in the fleet, increased complexity, increased pilot workload, and increased risk for error.

Harry Nuttal, director of aviation for energy provider Southern Company, closed out the discussion with a final comment: “What we see here is a fear of change. Operators, you need to listen to the end user. You’re not in the driver’s seat on this. We have to go there. It’s the right thing to do. We need to work together to get comfortable with change.”

Other symposium presenters included director of international affairs Delphine Depestele at Airtelis, a wholly owned subsidiary of RTE (France’s electrical power utility), and Airbus senior manager of accident investigation Seth Buttner. Depestele shared the company’s experience of developing a hiring and training program for ground crews to increase safety. Buttner highlighted a number of fatal accident scenarios and lessons learned, underscoring the importance of many themes shared during the day – training, human factors, and partnership with customers on risk mitigation.

The day-long symposium was peppered with long breaks, allowing attendees to network and continue the conversations beyond the presentations. “We bring the community together expressly to have these conversations,” Conroe said at the end of the event. “When we come together and talk, our businesses benefit.”

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