(September 2011) Most general aviation pilots operate by themselves. While they may experience internal or external pressures, the pilot basically determines how the flight will be conducted in total isolation from any other inputs or organizational pressures. Pilots who fly for a company, airline or other organization, on the other hand, typically operate within a culture that works with their own personality to strongly influence how they respond to challenging conditions. Years ago the U.S. Navy discovered how important this organizational culture is in influencing a unit’s safety record. While most squadrons tried to instill a safety culture, there were also squadrons that would develop a culture of “bending the rules.” Those squadrons had a significantly higher accident and fatality rate.
Every organization exists to achieve certain goals, such as serving the customer, operating within a budget and perhaps making a profit. While these are admirable goals, they can often be in direct conflict with operating safely. Management has to walk a fine line between getting the job done in a cost-effective and efficient manner while also, at the same time, ensuring that the operation is conducted safely and nobody is hurt or killed.
A helicopter crash in June 2009 illustrates how management policy and decisions can be a factor even when there is no overt pressure on a pilot to take or continue a flight. On the surface, the accident seemed to be the result of a typical chain of events that gradually led the pilot into an unsafe situation. The chief pilot for the New Mexico State Police (NMSP) was off duty after working a full eight-hour shift that involved three flights when dispatch called him about a flight to rescue a hiker lost in the mountains about 20 miles northeast of Santa Fe. The pilot contacted the other NMSP helicopter pilot to see if he could take the flight, but he was unavailable, so the chief pilot accepted the mission.
Initially he said it was too windy to fly, but after checking the weather he called dispatch back to say that he could “probably” do the flight. Although it was late in the day with only a few hours of daylight left, because search-and-rescue personnel were already in contact with the lost hiker via cell phone, he likely felt it would be a quick out-and-back flight so he could return before dark. However, it turned out that the hiker did not speak English very well and was unable to provide any information to help rescuers locate her, so it took more than an hour for the helicopter pilot and spotter to find her. By then the weather was rapidly deteriorating, with strong winds, sleet and snow.