After a significant accident or incident involving flight operations, my Navy squadron would halt all flying to conduct a day-long review of various safety subjects as closely related to the accident or incident as prudence allowed. This break in our operational routine was called a “safety standdown”; and it was designed to make sure we had our heads screwed on right about taking risks. It was one thing to lose aircraft and aircrew due to combat; it’s quite another to lose them to preventable accidents. It was an effort to reinforce “better dead than look bad” or “it can’t happen to me” really doesn’t work, something some folks in aviation just don’t get.
We all have accidents, sometimes minor and sometimes, serious, happen at our airports. I don’t know about you but all that often happens afterwards is I pick up gossip about what went wrong, at least until the NTSB report comes out…if there is one. Too often, though, even when an accident reaches Part 830 thresholds to become reportable, unless it makes the evening news, we pilots hear nothing. (And that’s even MORE true for accidents that don’t trip the 830 threshold.) That’s exactly the opposite of what would make for a safer community. Over and over, in the safety world, we learn that open and honest communication about what went wrong is what helps the world become safer, though it still only occurs when the practitioners of whatever dark art we’re talking about take the lesson provided to heart.
Just before the holidays, we had four significant accidents associated with operations at our airport within about six weeks. Two of them were fatal and one involved significant injuries. Three of them occurred during or shortly after takeoff and one during the landing phase (the most risky parts of the flight profile). The latter was the only one not involving an injury or fatality but did disable the aircraft. The accidents involved both flying clubs on the field and one private individual not based there. Though these were certainly not the first fatal accidents that had occurred out there, the number and severity of the accidents within the short timeframe got lots of folks’ attention, including mine. The initial lack of response from anyone appeared deafening to me, and I brought up the subject with some of my compatriot instructors, some of whom also have military and/or safety backgrounds. Everyone thought a safety standdown was a good idea. Eventually, one did happen…almost. A FAAST event was put together at one of the flying clubs, though the notification announcing it was not widespread or much in advance. The flying club involved in one of the fatal accidents had an instructor give a brief review of stall/spin factors (though it was too rushed for my liking); a pilot’s organization rep gave a brief on airport pattern operations that was, unfortunately, tainted with incorrect gouge (something another flight instructor next to me agreed with me on); a helicopter training school gave a helpful brief on helicopter operations (they were fairly new at the airport so the fixed wing guys were adjusting to their presence); and a group of formation flyers introduced themselves. I felt some of it was helpful, some of it was better than nothing, but the whole experience could have been improved with more focus. A “safety standdown” is different from a safety seminar in that the latter may cover related accident causes (or suspected accident causes if the probable cause has not been established) but a safety standdown is aimed right at them. That does not exclude it from including other safety related material that might be relevant, but its primary focus is aimed at the events that triggered it.
Because we’re talking about this in relation to general aviation and not a centralized authority (like a military command), someone has to take the bull by the horns and get it going. Any flight school or flying club can decide to do it, and it will achieve maximum impact if associated flight operations are halted during it. This would have to last long enough to send a strong signal that safety is being taken seriously, i.e., a minimum of two to four hours, depending on the quantity of relevant material and the significance of the trigger event(s). In the event there are multiple clubs or schools, the airport FBO or management could call for the standdown and act as the focal point for putting it together and hosting the activities. Each flight school or flying cub could provide safety officers, CFI’s, or other knowledgeable pilots to a working group that would discuss the events and trends they have been seeing and then decide on the content, timing, and location of the event. FAAST/FAA Wings credit for attendance should go without saying; FAAST subjects that might relate to the events could well be prime candidates for inclusion, even when the probable cause of the trigger events are only suspected and not known. This is not the same as speculating on the probable causes; that needs to be avoided; but there is little new in the causes of most general aviation accidents. Related safety information will be available.
So, okay, that’s the ideal. Not every airport manager, FBO, flight school, or flying club is going to be willing to stop all flight operations. While doing so will provide maximum benefit, you can still make it work by letting flying continue and making attendance at it totally voluntary. The other logistics of it need to remain the same, i.e., the agenda needs to be matched up with the events being targeted. Take video of the presentations and make them available for those who wanted to come but couldn’t for whatever the reason. If you have a newsletter, either electronic or paper, you can include information about the highlights of the events, including any lessons learned or changes to operations that might come out of them.
Additionally, maximum benefit can be gained by making the event, as much as possible, an interactive exchange between the presenters and the pilots in the room. It’s an opportunity to not only impart wisdom from the podium but gain some from the folks in the room. Almost every gathering of this type will be filled with pilots from a myriad of backgrounds…some military, some general aviation, some from the business aviation community, and some from the airlines or some with parts of them all. Encourage those with experiences that relate to the topic to share them; it not only helps us get to know each other better but it opens the door to tapping the wealth of experiences whose depth we would otherwise have no knowledge of. It also reinforces the idea that anything can happen to any of us; and, if it does, knowing how someone else handled it, good or bad, might help us make the outcome go our way.
(Author’s Note: Thanks to Jim Gardner,ATP/CFI and Russell Lewey, Educational Director for FlyQuest, for their input to this article.)