One of the fundamental problems in a culture that preaches “best practices” is that many of us don’t. Aviation psychology is handled with human factors banter that is put in the manual.
We’re bored, tired, uninspired and the act of flying the airplane reflects that. The accidents scream about it. Flight Safety International even trademarked:
“The best safety device in an aircraft is a well trained crew.”
You might add healthy aviation psychology is a pre-requisite for a well trained crew.
If your attitude or mental state is in the way, no amount of manuals is going to keep you safe. (See last our post on racism and how it can impact safety.)
You can train anyone ad nauseum. But in the end, if they are miserable, uninspired and uncurious, you’ve got blockage.
To take a risk, one might go a step further. I would say, if you’ve flown charter or in business aviation, you know that more often this is the case. In fact, putting a number to it, I’d say that more than 50% of the time, you are not employing “the best safety device” as advertised.
And since we aren’t the military or airlines . . . we have less resources. We don’t have the best and latest screening tools and we end up with some strange stories.
Faking It – In An Audit Culture
The challenge with auditors and certifications is that the pilot is being led by the nose to say what he or she is supposed to say.
Auditor: “We score this better if you do it this way. Do you do it this way?”
Chief Pilot: “Oh jeez . . . absolutely . . . always have . . . always will!”
N121JM ran off the end of the runway at Hanscom Field in Bedford, MA in 2014, killing everyone aboard. High time, veteran captains. Fresh from training. Audited to the highest standard possible in business aviation.
And yet it was the direct result of a series of all too obvious conditions that plagued the crew as people. Not the airplane, not the training and not the audits they had potentially faked their way through. The fact was that these guys were asleep at the switch. Without being an alarmist, I’d like to make the case that many of us are.
James Albright referred to the accident as “Involuntary Manslaughter.” (More on his dissection of the accident here)
While strong words, there may be no other way to describe a crew who went of script when they shouldn’t have. To debate whether a control lock is engaged (while running out of runway) is the highest form of treason. Treason hits the right message since the one thing we train – time and again – is to be categorical about whether to fly or not.
Our Wiring and the Aviation Human Factors Assessment
After being absent from the cockpit for over 10 years, I had the opportunity to study my own species. I was able to look at my own risk prone (and averse) behavior and take an inventory of how lucky I was:
As a twenty something I worked in Africa, Maine and Labrador. Doing stupid things meant near certain fatal punishment. I spent most days wondering what neophyte move I might make and how to self educate as quickly as possible. I survived a few, but mostly watched in awe *much smarter / older / better* pilots than myself met their fate.
As a thirty something I operated a small Part 135 company in the Northeastern US. I did this in twin engine piston aircraft – the ones that make up *most* of all the fatal accidents. I was responsible for pilots, training and compliance. Self study was the only way to sort out what mattered from what was fluff.
Now, as a forty something, I’m fortunate to be flying turbine aircraft and learning how safe and amazing life can be. I’d like to underscore *can.* Human and aviator species are special in that if you give us an extra margin of safety, we’ll gobble it up in complacency.
Looking back, after years of operating it struck me how little we knew about safety. In my case, it seemed random luck that I knew to study this thing or that – to gain an edge over the elements, the machine, but most importantly, myself.
Later, as a charter broker, I developed a risk mitigation tool for 3rd party charter flights.
This effort was born, in large part, due to the lack of trust I had in my fellow Part 135 operators. This lack of trust stemmed from a lack of faith. Faith that their audit standard (displayed as a badge of legitimacy) meant anything. Were they into window dressing? Or actually learning how to manage risk?
The accident in Bedford, MA in May of 2014 was the most prominent example of what the accident record shows generally with professional aviators. The system itself won’t save you – you actually have to adopt a mindset.
You might call this a “growth mindset.” If you have it, there’s a good chance you operate at peak capability. If you don’t, odds are you’ll probably be ok, after all technology is looking after you at every corner. But you open the door to risk when you can’t embrace change or growth.
What I wanted my clients to imagine . . . was a place where they knew that every safety angle had been covered.
A culture where non-punitive reporting was actually non-punitive. When you underpay, threaten or intimidate crew members, you might as well toss the manual, the audit and any mission statement you have out the window.
Years of consulting, advising and finding holes in a current FAA and auditor system led me to one place. Psychology and mental health. More broadly, aviation psychology.
If aviators don’t have the tools or ability to talk about human factors then your foundation is weak. Any audit, representation or standard that was sold to a client, lacks teeth if the human factors aren’t central.
Birth of the Aviation Human Factors Assessment (AHFA)
The AHFA was developed out of frustration with present models of safety. It doesn’t replace, interrupt or seek to minimize the importance of current tools. Rather, it enhances them by making aviation psychology the central focus of the entire effort.
Flight risk assessment begins by making good decisions. And good decisions assume a healthy mind. A mind that is free of stress and any rigidity that prevents learning from new information as it comes in. This holds true both in flight and on the ground.
Elements and Expectation
An AHFA monitored company looks at 4 critical elements:
Structural – Risk mitigation requires a framework. Without a manual and procedures there’s no spine to the system. Without solid accountability and methods to show the how and why of operations, there is no starting point for a discussion.
Integral – The biggest failure of firms that have good structure is completely ignoring it. We call this the “window dressing vs. core value problem.” Accident data contains plenty of audited firms that simply didn’t apply what they had in the books.
Corporal – Perhaps a bit too far into the touchy feely for some, this is element is simple. Corporal elements uncover the link between diet, alcohol use, physical stamina, and BMI. For good measure you might look at hobbies / interests and on going learning predisposition and safety. Anxiety and depression inhibit safety. Yet individual aviators in many different roles suffer from both. (link to article) Being anxious about the future or depressed about the past leads to one thing – a pilot that is not able to be “in the present.” Lack of appreciating moments, present moments, is the single largest drain on human psyches.
Social – Finally the elusive “Culture of Safety.” What does it mean? And what is the interpersonal like in a corporation? Does it foster “Question, never defend” or do underlyings fear asking? A company’s culture frequently has nothing to do with its mission statement. Its turnover, sick days, absentee rates, and other parameters can give insights into window dressing vs. authenticity.
Employing the best elements of aviation psychology, a successful adoption of an AHFA, delivers results:
If best practices and human factors interest you, don’t hesitate to contact us. We are implement leading edge audit and risk mitigation tools for insurance and financial underwriters, as well as flight departments of all sizes. If you’d like to reduce claims or simply understand what pilots actually do or think, get in touch.