SMS Director: The Risk Managers

SMS Sheryl Clark
Capt. Sheryl Clarke takes time each week to interact with Expressjet maintenance personnel as part of her safety management program for the airline. Clarke and her team of safety experts troubleshoot issues that effect the safety of flight both in the cockpit and on the ground.Photo courtesy of Sheryl Clark

Safety management systems (SMS) — if someone in aviation whispers these three words in your ear, then it is time to sit up and listen. It’s a newly defined career in aviation — SMS director — and one that is growing quickly.

A search on LinkedIn for “SMS officer aviation” lists SMS experts in companies around the world. Get this: These people are fixed wing and helicopter pilots, of course, but also engineers, mechanics, auditors, trainers, instructors and more. They have all chosen to specialize in creating the safety protocols, checklists and systems that keep their companies’ employees from making dangerous mistakes.

“Safety became attractive to me because you have to be proactive at managing risk when you are flying,” says Capt. Sheryl Clarke, director of safety, security and compliance at ExpressJet Airlines in Atlanta, Georgia. After 16 years at ExpressJet and nine years flying and teaching in the U.S. Air Force before that, Capt. Clarke knows how to manage risk. “You can look at accidents from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and you can see where the company did not train the pilots in effective ‘threat and error’ management. They could have been prevented,” she sighs. “We create processes to keep the accident from happening again.”

That being said, she knows there is some risk in aviation. “It’s always a balance —you have to make money; you have to stay on schedule; moving people is your goal. But you have to get them there safely,” she continues.

What’s a typical day for Clarke? She’ll review flight parameters from the airplanes to look for unstable approaches and any problematic maintenance issues, essentially ferreting out any threats to safety.

“We try to develop ways to short circuit the problem before it actually becomes an issue,” she explains. “We are moving away from the culture of adrenaline and the hero attitude, and developing a culture of safety so people can make good decisions quickly,” she says.

Clarke travels between bases, but she spends plenty of nights at home. SMS director salaries range from $50,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the size of the company or flight department. Many times the job at smaller companies also includes line flying or other flight-department tasks. ExpressJet, Allegiant, CAE Flight Academy and a dozen other aviation entities are currently hiring directly into SMS positions.

Clarke has worked as manager of flight standards, senior line check pilot, first officer on the ATR-42, and captain and check airman on the Embraer EMB-145, but it was her decision to take vacation time to complete a SMS certification course that qualified her for the position.

“SMS will be legislated in 14 CFR Part 121 airline operations in the U.S. by 2018,” Clarke explains. “I go with the mantra of make yourself the obvious next choice for the position you want. I did,” she says.

And that’s her advice to you. “Don’t wait for someone to ask ‘who wants to do this?’” she says. Clarke recently started to manage quality control in maintenance. Crossing those boundaries could lead to running an entire airline one day.

Want to learn more about SMS? Begin your search at the source by browsing over to FAA.gov/about/initiatives/sms/. To find programs for certification check UAA.aero or FAPA.aero.