Safety is No Accident
How A Personal SMS Can Help Keep You Safe
By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Editor
You’ve probably heard the “safety is no accident” reminder in various parts of your life. At the most basic level, it is a clever word play with a double meaning. The most literal of these is that safety “means” or “equals” no accidents. The owner of a flight school I knew many years ago very much adopted this version, proudly stating to one and all that his organization was very safe because there had never been an accident involving its airplanes, its instructors, or its clients. Sadly, he lulled himself into believing that until one annus horribilis that saw a rash of accidents — including one that was fatal to both instructor and student. The ensuing investigations revealed that the previously spotless record resulted more from good luck.
The more important meaning of the phrase is that safety doesn’t happen accidentally. It requires a level of thinking, planning, and acting that we often describe as “aeronautical decision-making” or “risk management.” That’s why the FAA incorporated context-specific risk management elements into each Area of Operation and task in the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) documents. In short, safety is not so much a state of being as it is a matter of doing the right things to create — and maintain! — safe operations.
Each of us could probably come up with a long list of DO and DON’T actions consistent with safety and good airmanship. The list would likely include actions that involve personal responsibility and accountability, concern for the community, and behaviors consistent with safety and risk management. Most items I might suggest are consistent with the four pillars of the Safety Management System (SMS) approach that the FAA, the international community, aviation operators, and many other industries have embraced as the best and most effective way to achieve acceptable levels of safety risk. So, let me offer an outline for how a simple personal SMS can frame both the conceptual and the participatory elements that can help you do the things that will truly make you a safe pilot.
Safety Policy — Define Your Aviation Values and Personal Minimums
A solid starting point for your personal aviation safety policy is the Aviators Model Code of Conduct (AMCC). This document (available gratis from secureav.com) suggests that a pilot should make safety the highest priority, seek excellence in airmanship, aspire to professionalism, adhere to laws and regulations, and act with responsibility and courtesy to others. The enumerated values also include the importance of situational awareness, risk management, and “prudent operating practices” such as personal minimums.
Clearly defined, individually tailored, written personal minimums should be part of a safety-minded pilot’s individual SMS safety policy. Think of personal minimums as the human factors equivalent of the regulatory requirement for fuel reserves. That’s because properly constructed personal minimums define the safety reserve between the skills and aircraft performance required for a specific flight, and the skills and aircraft performance available.
There are numerous tools available to help guide you through the process of developing personal minimums, and the FAA Safety Briefing team has in previous issues offered a guide with a worksheet that you can use for this exercise (see Your Safety Reserve: Developing Personal Minimums, FAA Safety Briefing, March/April 2015). Regardless of the tool you choose, the important thing for your personal safety policy is to include personal minimums tailored to your individual training, experience, currency, and proficiency, as well as to the characteristics and capabilities of your aircraft.
Safety Risk Management — Stick to Your Personal Minimums
Tools such as the AMCC and written personal minimums are very helpful when it comes to adhering to stated values. Predetermined and explicitly stated metrics for go/no-go and continue/divert decisions provide practical tools for meaningful risk management. For operations in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), for instance, you might have personal minimums that say you will not operate in conditions defined as low IFR. Your personal minimums might keep you on the ground if thick haze significantly reduces visibility, or if the strength of a gusty crosswind is more than you can confidently manage. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t aim to expand your skills. But you negate the safety risk management value if you amend your personal safety policy just to make a specific trip. Consequently, good safety risk management means sticking to pre-established safety policy if conditions exceed stated limitations. If you are worried about disappointing passengers, consider sharing your written personal minimums with them before you even depart for the airport. That helps non-pilots understand why a delay or diversion might be necessary and reinforces to them that safety really is your highest priority.
Safety Assurance — Update Your Operating Policies
Since continuous improvement is highly desirable, you need a sound safety assurance process to account for changes to your circumstances. Is the airplane you normally fly unavailable for the flight you’re making? Does that mean you will instead fly an aircraft with different equipment or performance characteristics? Are you ready for that challenge? Do you have a new certificate or rating? You naturally want to use it, and the training and checking required to earn it make your knowledge and skill as sharp as they may ever be. Alternatively, has it been a while since your last flight or your last no-kidding instrument approach?
These are just a few of the factors that go into deciding when, how, and to what extent personal minimums should change. Rule number one is that changes should be well considered and well planned. If you want to expand your personal operating policies and limitations, it’s never a bad idea to discuss your plans with a flight instructor who is familiar with your skills, your experience, and your aircraft. Better yet, “test” your proposed updated operating policies with an instructor on board. It’s also essential to review personal minimums and other operating policies on a regular basis, maybe during WINGS proficiency flights or your next flight review.
Speaking of WINGS, continued education and training is another way to update skills and expand personal minimums. Opportunities abound, with options ranging from online courses to safety seminars to innovative simulation and much more.
Safety Promotion — Contribute to the Community
Safety-minded behavior includes safety promotion. Most pilots know about the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), colloquially known as “NASA forms.” Yes, NASA forms provide a sanctions-relief benefit in the event of an enforcement action. But the fundamental point of this system is to maintain a “crowd-sourced” database that collects, analyzes, and shares information on issues affecting safety. Online submission makes ASRS easy to use and speaking up when you have a safety concern lets you contribute to the aviation community.
Mentoring offers still another opportunity to give back or, as the saying goes, to repay your own mentors and aviation benefactors by “paying it forward” to the next generation of aviators. If you have special skills or experience, offer to share your expertise with a pilot who can benefit from it.
There is undoubtedly plenty more that each of us can do to deliberately create the culture of safety we need. We are counting on you to do your part.
Susan K. Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.