What Is Safety?

It should be a simple question. After all, it seems like almost every classroom, hangar, shop or production area has posters reminding people that "Safety Comes First" and to "Be Safe," "Fly Safe" and "Work Safe." Yet when I ask the people attending my Preventing Human Error seminar to define safety, to explain how to "be safe," my question is typically met with silence. Even a room full of safety officers is usually at a loss for words. No wonder all those posters don't seem to be very effective!

After a while someone may say that safety is not having any injuries or accidents. I point out that avoiding injuries and accidents is the result of safety, not the definition. After a few more minutes someone may finally link safety with risk mitigation, which is what safety is really all about. My definition of safety is very simple. Safety is reducing risk in general and eliminating unnecessary risk.

Reducing Risk in General Of course there is no way to totally eliminate all risk. Life is risky, and every single thing we do entails some level of risk. Walking down a flight of stairs is riskier than walking across a level floor. Taking a shower in a slippery bathtub is riskier than walking down a flight of stairs. Even a relatively simple flight on a good day entails more risk than most actions that involve keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground. However, there is a lot we can do to reduce that risk, and it is a shame to take a risk we don't need to take. Let's take a look at some of the ways pilots can reduce risk in general:

Initial Training: Reducing risk starts with flight training. It can be tempting to try to save money by selecting a less expensive instructor or a school promising a license within the minimum time required. Everything we learn as pilots is built upon the foundation of our primary flight training, so it is a wise investment to ensure that training is professional and complete.

Refresher Training: Any skill or knowledge gradually diminishes if not refreshed regularly, and there are constant changes and improvements we need to keep abreast of. With everything else going on, it can be easy to feel comfortable with our current knowledge level when in fact it has decreased quite a bit from when we first attained our license. Look for regular opportunities to refresh and enhance your knowledge of aviation information and regulations.

Regular Flights With an Instructor: Our flying skills can also diminish over time. While a flight review every two years is better than nothing, it is far better to schedule several instructional flights during the course of a year to review previous skills and learn new ones.

Good Maintenance: Aircraft maintenance is another area where busy schedules and tight budgets can wreak havoc. The cost of owning an airplane does not end with the purchase. Someone once said to me that owning an airplane is like running a small business. It can take lots of time and considerable money to keep an airplane in top running condition. If you are not willing to invest the necessary time and money, then you should not own an airplane.

Good Diet: Like other activities that can tax our system, flying safely requires that we be alert and our senses be sharp. A good balanced diet helps to maintain our senses in peak operating condition, and healthy snacks before and during a long flight give us the energy to deal with difficult flight conditions.

Consistent Sleep: Studies have shown that many people in modern society are actually sleep deprived. It can be tempting to stay up and watch the 10 p.m. news before going to bed, or maybe even catch a late show. However, most adults need seven to eight hours of quality sleep every night. Over time, staying up late and then getting up early for work the next day develops a sleep deficit that can have an effect similar to being legally intoxicated.

Careful Flight Planning: It can be tempting to look out the window at clear blue skies and decide that it is not necessary to check the weather. However, the weather can change suddenly, and even a simple increase in wind can put a pilot in a situation beyond his abilities.

Thorough Preflight: After years of uneventful preflight inspections, it is easy to fall into the habit of doing a quick walk-around without carefully examining the airplane. Things like bent props and missing nuts on control surfaces are only found during a calm, detailed look at the airplane.

Consistent Use of Checklist: An aviation psychologist has said that if we have two things we need to do, we can easily forget to do one of them. Many "mature" pilots are discovering that this becomes even more true as our logbooks fill and our hairlines recede. Familiarity with an airplane is no excuse for trying to do everything by memory, and Murphy's Law states that the one time you forget something will be the most critical time that step was needed.

Eliminating Unnecessary Risk Even with a consistent effort to reduce risk as much as possible, we can still negate all that preparation by taking one unnecessary risk. Some of the more common unnecessary risks pilots take are:

Flying When Hungry or Exhausted: All it takes is one missed meal or night without sleep to put us into a condition where it is very easy to make wrong or unwise decisions.

Flying While Under the Influence: In my very first article for Flying ("Bottle & Throttle," August 1985), I found that it was possible to fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal) and get away with it-for a while. Sooner or later, however, conditions will develop that require the full attention and skill of the pilot when those are just not available.

Flying in Conditions Beyond Our Capabilities: No one can handle every possible weather condition nature can throw our way. For a non-instrument rated pilot, simply flying in the clouds can be too much. For an instrument rated pilot in an airplane without anti-icing, flying in conditions conducive to icing is an unnecessary risk.

Not Having an Out: If we always waited for perfect flying conditions, the amount of avgas consumed would be substantially reduced. Due to the vagaries of weather forecasts, sometimes we decide to go when we really can't be sure we will make it to the destination. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we have a good alternative course of action and never continue on when that "back door" is closing.

Flying Low/Buzzing: One of the first flights a new pilot makes is often over a relative's house. There is nothing wrong with showing off your new license at a safe altitude, but all too many pilots decide that is not enough, and put on an impromptu airshow that ends in disaster.

Aerobatics Without Training and Proper Equipment: Flying an airplane within its normal certificated flight regime is fairly simple. Take the airplane outside those parameters, and you are now a very unprepared test pilot flying in conditions that occasionally take the lives of even the most highly trained aerobatic pilots flying airplanes certified for aerobatics.

Formation Flying: The whole idea of flying is to stay away from other airplanes, yet some pilots decide they want the thrill of seeing another airplane up close and personal in flight. Without proper training, this can easily lead to an unfortunate end.

Flying With Deficient Equipment: Even the best-maintained equipment sometimes has problems, and the pressure to complete a flight or get the airplane to a location where it can be easily fixed can be very strong.

Flying Without Oxygen: Flying above 10,000 feet (day) or 5,000 feet (night) for extended periods without oxygen can lead to vision problems, poor decision making, unconsciousness and even death.

Second Approach: There is nothing wrong with a second approach if you know why you missed the first one, and want to go back and do it right. However, if you did everything right on the first approach, and there is no information that the weather has changed for the better, the odds are that you are going to go below minimums on the second approach to try to see the runway.

Being a Safe Pilot I think you would be hard pressed to find any pilot who would say that he does not want to be safe. However, an honest self-examination would likely turn up areas where we are not doing everything we can to reduce risk in general and situations in the past where we have taken an unnecessary risk. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, I hope it provides a good mirror for each of us to look into and determine if we are truly safe pilots.

If you can think of other ways to reduce risk in general or eliminate unnecessary risk, please write to me at flyedit@hfmus.com.


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