As the use of Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS) technology has continued to mature and grow throughout the helicopter industry, managers, pilots, and mechanics must be committed to supporting the entire NVG program both inside and outside the cockpit. Rotorcraft Pro asked several training experts in the night vision industry to point out the most common operational errors they see in the field so operators can enhance nighttime helicopter NVIS operations. Here are 9 operational areas that night vision experts Night Flight Concepts and Aviation Specialties Unlimited say could use consideration and improvement by operators and end users.
1. Lack of understanding about the components of NVG program management:
Once acquired, there remains minimal understanding and sometimes a significant lack of interest in maintaining the overall NVG Program. The equipment once purchased is viewed as any other piece of equipment and doesn't have any sustainment plan. The only constant is the NVG inspection program due to regulatory drivers. However NVG maintenance, training, etc. is often cut back since the feeling is, "Once you know how to use them, you don't need additional training."
2. Conformity inspections not accomplished correctly:
A large number of mistakes are made throughout the industry when managing a NVIS equipped aircraft, arising from poor practices of inspection occurring during scheduled maintenance. Many times an aircraft goes into inspection with requirements in the Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) dictating a conformity or configuration inspection. This inspection would and/or could identify a number of possible mistakes. Commonly missed items may include: components required at the original installation may still not be installed, and/or they are not functioning correctly. Has the aircraft configuration changed, i.e. equipment moved and or changed?
3. Poor crew resource management in the cockpit:
There is often a failure to fully utilize available crewmembers such as Tactical Flight Officers (TFO) to assist the Pilot Flying (PF) with aircraft control. Crewmembers should be trained, using standardized callouts, to advise the PF with information regarding drifting during hovering maneuvers, tail clearance, power settings, positive rate of climb, airspeed, rates of descent, etc.
4. Replacement of equipment occurs but the required NVIS solution is not applied:
Components often fail for one reason or another, and the unit is replaced. In NVIS-modified aircraft, the new / replacement unit likewise needs to be modified. Often this is not accomplished and the aircraft is returned to service without being in conformance. Pilots trying to accomplish their mission will “live” with the unit being bright and obtrusive in the cockpit, often making statements to the tune of “Oh yeah, that radio is really bright, I put black tape on it” or “I throw my flight gloves over it at night.” Replacement of equipment is clearly defined in the ICAs, so the ICAs must be followed or subsequent equipment modifications can be missed.
When it comes to NVIS mods of existing systems, Night Flight Concepts President Adam Aldous says, “A common mistake we see are pilots and crews not holding maintenance staff to task making sure the modification is satisfactory. Often, operators spend a lot of unnecessary time correcting problems addressing light leaks and problems associated with improper mods. This falls back in the NVG Program as a whole, but this is a safety concern and all but ignored.”
5. Training in-house rather than with NVG training experts:
Training in-house rather than with NVG training experts occurs frequently and can result in insufficient training from a unit pilot who does little NVG pilot training. Often NVG training is just a side job for the unit instructor, rather than a profession. Additionally, bad habits, misinformation and improper training are passed down from pilot to pilot.
6. Maintenance staff is not properly trained to maintain NVIS-equipped aircraft:
In accordance with FAA FAR Part 145 and/or Part 43 maintenance technicians are required to have the tools, training and know-how to accomplish the maintenance. NVIS cockpit modifications are not extremely difficult to maintain and/or install, but special procedures and training are necessary to accomplish these tasks. For example, familiarity and operational training on the NVGs is critical so an A&P can correctly perform a NVIS light leak check after an equipment replacement / modification. When queried by the FAA, a technician and/or company will need to be able to answer this question, as well as provide evidence for how they comply with the regulation.
7. Overconfidence in the cockpit:
Once crews begin using NVGs, it’s quite common for their confidence to increase rapidly. Sort of like swimming, as long as you don't have a cramp while in the deep end, you're probably OK. Too often, however, pilots are flying their helicopters deep into weather beyond their capabilities and leaving themselves with minimal options to maintain visual meteorological conditions (VMC). This is especially hazardous in low-light areas. Training and awareness is the key, see #5 above.
8. Proper fit and focus procedures:
It’s important to be taught how to properly fit the aviator’s helmet, adjust the NVGs and then focus the equipment. If the operator does not take the time to properly teach these basics, many aviators and crewmembers will look for reasons not to use a valuable tool in their toolbox. Improper helmet fit and the added weight of the NVGs will lead to hot spots in the helmets or require aviators to continually adjust their helmets as the weight of the NVGs slide the helmets forward on their heads. We have seen some operators require their crewmembers to share flight helmets, which leads to the inevitable improper fit. This is a practice that should be discouraged. Improper adjustment and focus can lead to neck and eye fatigue, reducing aviators’ overall ability to perform their functions to the highest degree.
“By my estimation, these procedures being taught properly are the most important and lays the foundation for proper crewmember and pilot use of NVGs,” says Justin Watlington, Director of Ops for Aviation Specialties Unlimited.
9. Not using a steerable searchlight as a tool:
Each operator wishing to conduct Night Vision Goggle Operations is required to utilize a training program that includes a minimum of 5 hours of ground training and 5 hours of flight training. A strong program will incorporate the use of a steerable searchlight for use both on and off airport to provide greater contrast into the night vision image, thus providing for greater scene contrast and detail. A searchlight can be improperly used. Therefore it is incumbent upon the program's instructors and check pilots to reinforce proper light discipline.