By Debbie Hersman
General James Doolittle led the first American air raid of World War II with all volunteers. He said later, “Nothing is stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” That is so true. Volunteerism in America goes back to our country’s founding 235 years ago, and the spirit of volunteerism is still alive and well.
Today, volunteer pilots transport patients for medical treatment. They also transport donated organs, fly disaster relief flights, patrol our waterways, and perform search-and-rescue missions. These men and women work with the Armed Forces, the Department of Homeland Security, nonprofit organizations, and even other foreign governments to keep people safe. They give of their own time, resources, and equipment to perform these missions, many of which would remain undone were it not for their belief in the importance of the mission, dedication, and self sacrifice.
Sadly, sometimes this dedication can come with painful consequences. The pressures to move patients to where they can receive needed treatment, to get an organ to a hospital on time, or to fly into an unsafe environment so that injured or stranded people can be evacuated can be a powerful motivator that overrides sound judgment about deteriorating weather, pilot currency and proficiency, equipment familiarity, training, and crew resource management.
That’s why the NTSB, along with Angel Flight and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), hosted a Volunteer Pilot Safety Stand Down/Seminar at the NTSB Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia. Two hundred volunteer pilots from a variety of organizations attended this full day of presentations and engaged in discussions about safety issues that directly relate to their missions. Pilots from Angel Flight, Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flying Paws, and many others attended. I was delighted to present the keynote address to the seminar.
The NTSB participated in this important training symposium because it addresses critical safety issues. During our accident investigations, we repeatedly see the tragic consequences of poor decision making. Through events like this, we can share what we’ve learned with pilots in the hope that the lessons can help prevent the same mistakes from happening in the future. With a renewed awareness of aviation’s inherent dangers, we want pilots to safely fly these important missions and continue that spirit of volunteerism.