Safety – Attending Funerals, or Walking Away.

Over the many years that I have been involved in aviation I have had to attend far too many funerals of fellow pilots. Disregarding the few who died of natural or some non-aviation causes, most of them had perished because of an aerobatic manoeuvre that went wrong, flying into terrain while scud-running, or running out of fuel and then attempting a botched forced lob. I know of only one where the aircraft had suffered an in-flight breakup and that was as a result of homemade modifications causing flutter at near VNE.

With the commiserations over, the post funeral discussions would inevitably focus on “what went wrong” and the one oft-repeated statement would be: “I saw that coming”.

If we could “see it coming”, it would imply that the dead pilot had flown in a similar way before, had fallen out of that manoeuvre before, pushed the limits with scud-running before – in short, we acknowledge that we did have the opportunity to intervene. Had we not missed the opportunity to intervene, we may well have saved our friend’s life.

Perhaps if we and our dead friend had the opportunity to understand risk management and human factors a little better than the very basic level offered in the PPL and CPL courses, perhaps that could also have influenced our and his/her behaviour.

This is the basis for CRM: It is simply an attempt to allow humans to interact with sophisticated machinery and with other humans in a demanding environment – and to do so safely.

Do you regard the concept of CRM for General Aviation pilots as some mumbo-jumbo waste of time which only allows some individuals to make money from a CAA regulation? I have in fact received such responses from pilots, even from some ostensibly professional ones. The argument goes along the lines that CRM is the domain of airline pilots and it can only be applicable in a multi-crew environment.

I would argue that this points to a lack of understanding of the basic tenets of aviation, which are safety and professionalism. Please note that “professionalism” does not require four bars or a full-time paid pilot’s occupation, but implies a shared ethos, pride and training to an acceptable standard. Whether GA pilots or aviation professionals, we all share:

  • A wide range of required specialised skills.
  • A need for good judgment.
  • A need for recurrent training and proficiency.
  • A direct responsibility for the well-being of others.
  • Serious consequences for any mistake or misconduct.

    Allow me to start at the very beginning: Being a safe and professional aviator requires three things – Knowledge, Skill and Attitude.

Knowledge and skill are simply non-negotiable in aviation. When you hold a flying licence, whether a SPL or ATPL, you should be able to demonstrate the level of knowledge and skill required for that licence. So here is the question: Would you pass knowledge and skills tests at the required level today?

For any CRM programme to be effective the pilot or crew involved must be fully current and proficient. No amount of CRM or any other intervention will save your bacon if the required knowledge and skill is absent.

Do you have sweaty palms and feel dread and apprehension when the DE starts talking about simulated engine failures, limited panel and (heaven forbid) taboos such as stall/spin events? Why should we bother with those exercises, when our aircraft has all the latest GPS, glass cockpit and autopilot gadgets? We know the story: “I don’t really want to fly serious IF and do ILS approaches. All I actually want to do is flying to my pad at the coast with a makeshift letdown through the thin layer of cloud, led by the GPS on autopilot…”

“Risk increases when the pilot believes the gadgets compensate for lack of skill and knowledge.” This statement from the FAA sums it all up neatly. (Ref. FAA Risk Management Handbook, Chapter 7, p 7-10).

We see this in the field of commercial aviation as well – where young 200hr F/O’s are shoehorned into sophisticated airliner cockpits, able to programme the flight management computers and fly on autopilot. But there is a dire lack of the required resilience to deal with emergencies and especially to deal with “black swan” events. To my mind this lack of experience and training is one of the major reasons why “Loss of Control” currently is the major cause of airliner accidents.

Back to GA – I am of the opinion that we are witnessing a drop in training standards and a subsequent drop in the required knowledge and skills in General Aviation. Perhaps another way of stating this is that modern aviation requires a different training approach to achieve higher standards than before. Was this not the case, we would not see the steadily increasing accident statistics.

Looking at the number of airspace incursions reported recently (I have heard reports of about 30 incursions in two weeks) it clearly points to a lack of knowledge.

Many of the accidents point to simple lack of skill: James Godden, head of Santam Aviation, states in one of their adverts that they receive on average 40 accident related insurance claims per month, with 50% of all claims being made up of landing accidents. Landing short, fast, deep, overruns and excursions – we can blame the crosswind, but it simply shows a lack of skill in mastering anything more than benign conditions.

It also points to a lack of knowledge – perhaps the conditions were out of limits for the aircraft, or the runway was too short, closed or contaminated….

Add the other usual causes of accidents – flying into IMC without the required IF rating; overloading the aircraft, fuel mismanagement, low flying – and we see a combination of lack of knowledge and lack of skill.

Regarding accidents, we are at this stage of 2015 well past the number of fatal accidents of the previous few years.

At least we could correct this to some extent. Better oversight, better training – and then what? The one thing we cannot train is attitude, the one variable which is undoubtedly responsible for the decline in GA standards.

Attitude

The South African attitude problem is wider than just aviation. To paraphrase a quote from Guy Leitch of SA Flyer Magazine: South Africans live with a “frontier mentality” – we daily face a “wild west” of problems such as crime, corruption and failing services. This leads us to disregard rules and regulations and write our own rules – an attitude which spills over into our flying and allows us to underestimate the risks involved.

Dr. Nicklas Dahlstrom, Human Factors Manager of Emirates Airlines observed after visiting South Africa:

“ In a country where you live behind fences and bars, where a car breaking down may mean a risk to your life, where you are surrounded by risk in daily life etc., it is probably difficult to recalibrate your sense of risk and say that flying in between those mountains is risky – risky compared to what? Not compared to going through some areas in Johannesburg at night”.

So, two simple questions if you please:

  1. Those who never drive faster than the legal speed limit, hands up?
  2. Hands up please, those who never text or use their cell ‘phone while driving?

You see, the problem is that you cannot be Jekyll and Hyde. Flying is more than just a means of transport or a leisure activity – if the rigid discipline required in aviation is not a lifestyle, flying may well become a fatal occupation or pastime.

In fact, human behaviour studies have found that there is a direct correlation between disdain for rules and aircraft accidents. (Ref. FAA Risk Management Handbook, Chapter Two, page 2-2).

In an attempt to discover what makes a pilot accident prone, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversaw an extensive research study on the similarities and differences of pilots who were accident free and those who were not. The project surveyed over 4,000 pilots, half of whom had “clean” records while the other half had been involved in an accident. Five traits were discovered in pilots prone to having accidents:

  1. Disdain toward rules.
  2. High correlation between accidents in their flying records and safety violations in their driving records.
  3. Frequently falling into the personality category of “thrill and adventure seeking”.
  4. Impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined in information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions taken.
  5. Disregard for or underutilization of outside sources of information, including copilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors, and air traffic controllers.

There you have it – if you tend to break the rules in your daily life, you will do the same in the air. This is despite our protesting that we are “different” when we fly. The only “difference” is that on the ground you may incur a fine – in the air it could kill you.

One of the well-recognized hazardous attitudes in aviation is that of Anti-Authority, which believes that “rules are for others”. The antidote is to follow the rules, as they are usually right.

Rod Machado, well-respected pilot and instructor summed it up as follows:

“Rules, regulations and SOP’s are symbolic of aviation’s accumulated wisdom. Each one is a historical whisper of errors made, planes lost and limits challenged. Herein lie the posthumous tokens of aviation’s best lessons. They linguistically map out aviation’s hazardous territory. To operate beyond these areas is to thumb our noses at the gods of probability”.

Influence

Perhaps, if we could just wind back the clock and have the opportunity to avoid the funerals mentioned above, perhaps then we would understand the need for a change of attitude. We won’t be presumptuous and assume that we could simply change our rogue pilot’s attitude. The old military way of “attitude adjusting” would not have the desired and lasting effect and one would thus have to be much more diplomatic.

The only time a person would consider changing his/her attitude is when the benefits of doing so are obvious and I would argue that there is no greater benefit to be gained from our pursuit of aviation, than to fly safely.

It therefore remains our collective duty to ensure that we all uphold the required standards, train hard and gain the requisite knowledge and skill, all the while expecting our fellow pilots to do the same.

Barry Schiff, well-known former airline pilot and aviation journalist once wrote:

“A pilot invests years accruing knowledge, skill and experience the way a financial expert invests in stocks. Each does it for a payoff, the latter to walk away with a fortune now and then, and the former just to walk away – always.”

While our current accident and incident rate would seem to indicate otherwise, I simply cannot believe that any pilot would not want to walk away from each and every flight.

Perhaps that is the last and final question we need to ask before taking an aircraft into the air: Can I reasonably guarantee that I will be able fly this flight to a safe conclusion and allow me and my passengers to walk away?

Should there be the slightest hesitation in answering yes, it would be better to simply walk away before even attempting the flight. It could save us from attending yet another funeral.