Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Getting it Right

I write this column on the last day of May, as oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon with no apparent end in sight. With the “top-kill” having failed, there is speculation that it may be well into August before the well can be contained.


July 7, 2010
By Paul Dixon

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I write this column on the last day of May, as oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon with no apparent end in sight. With the “top-kill” having failed, there is speculation that it may be well into August before the well can be contained. Once the well is plugged or somehow brought under control, the cleanup will take years and it will be generations before the eco-systems recover. This will all pale in comparison to the time, effort and money that will go towards apportioning blame on one side and ducking responsibility on the other.

So, what does this have to do with commercial aviation in Canada? Let me connect the dots. Already, blame is being laid on various “systems” at every level, from front-line production to the highest levels of government; as in “the system failed.” Every day, the mainstream media gushes forth about system failures across our society – legal, health-care, education, etc. These systems are often spoken of in terms that imply they exist as living organisms, capable of autonomous action and independent thought, so that when they “fail” they do so of their own free will in a manner that could not be predicted or foreseen.

But, nothing could be further from the truth. Systems, no matter how complex or simple in nature, are merely an extension of the people who design, operate and maintain them. When a system fails, it’s because one or more people either did something they weren’t supposed to do or failed to do what they were supposed to do.

At this year’s CHC Safety Summit in Vancouver, several speakers referenced the February 2009 crash of the Colgan Air DHC-8-400 outside Buffalo, N.Y. Doug Weigman talked about a corporate safety culture (which would be the human side of a SMS), defining it at the personal level as “the way you behave when no one’s watching” and from the corporate level as a “leadership issue.” The main message? Safety culture starts at the very top of the organization – it can never be driven up from the bottom.

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Gene Cernan spoke of inexperienced pilots as being too reliant on technology while lacking the knowledge that only comes with experience to anticipate problems and the skills required to extricate themselves from situations when they do develop. Tony Kern talked about the human factors, questioning how a probationary first officer, flying with a captain she had just met for the first time, could be comfortable enough to be texting on her cell phone as the aircraft was taxiing, five minutes from takeoff.

Human factors, attitude, positive or negative (bad) – the reality is, an aircraft either has a positive attitude or a negative attitude. Nothing good comes from a negative attitude, as a review of TSB and NTSB reports will confirm. The same applies to the human side of the equation. Corporate attitude flows to the boardroom and fuels the front-line operations. An organization can have all the systems, processes, policies and protocols in place; meet or exceed every possible regulation. But, that is only the beginning – it has to be the way the organization lives and works.

There is only one way to do things, whether it’s running a multimillion-dollar business or changing a bicycle tire – the right way. All too often, we hear that common refrain about how there isn’t enough time to do the training or inspections. If you don’t have time to do things right the first time, when will you ever have time to fix it? The Deepwater Horizon is beyond “fixing.” In aviation, you can’t provide inexperienced and marginally qualified pilots with any degree of training after the crash.

If you do it right the first time, there’s a good chance you will never have to fix it, because it won’t be broken. To use a sports analogy, things may bend and they may stretch, but they won’t break. To continue with the sports analogies, you will only play as well as you practise. The biggest talent that top-flight professionals such as Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan had, apart from an extra-large dose of raw ability, was their willingness to practise longer and harder than anyone else. They didn’t practise the things they did well, they practised the things they didn’t do well. They acknowledged their own shortcomings and worked hard to overcome them.

In the sporting world, the gap between success and failure can appear frustratingly slim, but there’s always next season. In the real world, there may be no alternative to success.


Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.


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