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The Time is Now

Most of us in aviation and indeed, those who have followed the evolution of remedial flight safety measures over the years, are quite familiar with crew resource management (CRM) training.


March 5, 2015
By Walter Heneghan

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Most of us in aviation and indeed, those who have followed the evolution of remedial flight safety measures over the years, are quite familiar with crew resource management (CRM) training. Driven by unmanageable levels of “pilot error” or “human factors,” causal factors in aviation accidents, the advent of training programs that focused on crew behaviour rather than individual pilot behavior have their genesis in a landmark NASA sponsored conference in 1979.

Beginning with “cockpit” resource management, the first CRM training programs focused on cockpit leadership, cross cultural compatibility in the cockpit and presented studies of how pilots “really” behave behind closed doors at the front of the airplane. CRM has morphed into much more than those early seminars. Comprehensive training programs and seminars are now available and they can be much more than just a half day of “charm” school and videos. In fact, today’s CRM involves more than just the cockpit with the better courses addressing the interactions of all operational employees including engineers, dispatchers and managers.

Many EMS programs address the pilot-engineer-dispatcher-medic-doctor-nurse dynamic as well with their Air Medical Resource Management programs. It is heartening to see the CRM concept employed so broadly throughout aviation. This training has also migrated from being strictly the domain of the scheduled air carriers to being delivered at all levels of civil aviation, albeit in a diminished format for some single engine, single pilot operations.

Unfortunately, our industry is missing a great opportunity to enhance pilots’ decision-making skillsets by not fully embracing CRM training. Transport Canada mandates pilot decision-making (PDM) training for the non-airline operations in the context of low visibility operations but perhaps this mandate could be more stringent. Full airline type operations under part 705 have a requirement for approved CRM programs – maybe it is time to drive this requirement deeper into the industry? I fear that many of the courses and training currently available are not as effective as they could be, and in fact are a bit stale. It is not uncommon, in my experience, to have an operator that delivers the “same old, same old” every year; part of a rote solution to annual training. 

Further along this line is the introduction and whole hearted embracing of the next generation of PDM or CRM training – Threat and Error management, (TEM), a paradigm that was developed by the University of Texas Team Research Project, and first published in 1999 by Helmreich, Klinect and Wilhelm. The new model is an outcropping from a widespread, longitudinal study of data gathered from line operations safety audits (LOSA) with several major airlines. These LOSA studies revealed that there were as many as 3.3 “threats” per segment and as many as 2.5 errors committed by the flight crew, again per flight segment.

TEM is all about accepting that pilots and crewmembers WILL commit errors, every day, on every flight segment. Many current CRM/PDM courses dance around this notion, teaching about the theoretical human factors that lead to accidents. TEM says: “We will face threats and we will err. The threats will take the form of both expected (weather, icing, crosswinds on approach, tight landing areas etc.) and unexpected (aircraft system malfunctions, sudden change of plans etc.) And we will experience these errors through deliberate non-compliance, procedural and communication errors, proficiency errors or operational decision errors. And knowing that these types of errors are bound to occur, we need to be taught the tools to trap these errors to avoid undesirable consequences.

I love the language of TEM – and of the discipline to expect threats to our well-being on every flight segment, to develop a consciousness around them and to proactively develop coping strategies to avoid undesired consequences.

From the report:  “Training must recognize the inevitability of error. It should concentrate on the management of threat and error. It also needs to focus on strategies to reduce the consequences of errors and to mitigate undesired states.” In a nutshell, TEM needs to be added to current PDM and CRM training and fully embraced by training departments throughout the industry. We need all the tools available to help reduce our industry accident rates.


Walter Heneghan is the Vice President for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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