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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Training: Safety Culture

D Smith

It’s in the Cards

The wheels no more than hit the pavement and the usual frenzy breaks loose as 80% of the passengers on the plane scramble to get their cell phones out and turned on. As I look around I can’t help but wonder what in the world we ever did before cell phones. Eventually I follow suit, break mine out, turn it on and call my point of contact for an update. Two hours and a short cab ride later I’m shaking hands, making small talk, and meeting the others gathered for the event. During the course of conversation I’m reminded that even though many of the faces are new, the stories are all very familiar. One lady tells me she is a retired army aviator now flying for a growing EMS operator. Another says his father was a helicopter pilot and he was raised around choppers. Flying is all he ever wanted to do. Rightfully proud, he shares his current position as a flight captain for a large offshore operator. Others include the 141 flight school chief pilot, several local news station pilots, local law enforcement, and a one-ship small oil field service operator.

Several common denominators galvanize this group; all helicopter, all willing to share information, all in search of answers, all voluntarily attending, and all passionate about aviation safety. Where am I? This is a coordinated and cooperative gathering of helicopters operators within any given geographical area in the United States. What a fantastic and very noteworthy concept. Bring all the operators together to discuss helicopter issues particular to the local area of operation. Organized and sponsored solely by the operators and for the operators, these meetings have proven to be a very effective means of identifying and controlling aviation safety hazards and related issues; if for no other reason than centralized dissemination of information.

The agenda includes an opportunity for those in attendance to speak out and make comments. That’s usually when things get really interesting. I like to call it the shark theory. You know, when one shark finds the meal, takes a bite and bloodies the water, every shark within 1,000 miles smells the blood and rushes to maul the prey. The master of ceremonies gets that "what should I do" look of panic as he realizes he’s no longer in control of the discussion. As the discussion, (or frenzy I should) say continues, an uneasy sense of familiarity melts over me. I’ve heard these same comments over and over, and I’ll bet you have also. And, you know what? It’s not the specific topic that is familiar. It’s the principle.

It was the big, burly guy named Jim who started the whole frenzy on this particular day. Jim is a newly appointed and recently trained aviation safety manager/pilot for a small helicopter operator. Jim’s argument rang throughout the room like an echo in the Swiss Alps. His remark was to the point. "I’m an experienced pilot" he said. "And I know when I’m handed a high risk mission to fly. I understand the concept of risk verses benefit. The trouble is the pilot is usually not the one that needs convincing to turn down a high risk mission. Most pilots and supervisors know the solution to safe aviation operations, but until someone convinces the bean counters, there is little we can about the situation. And it won’t do much good to seek employment elsewhere, most operators are the same" he added. "Oh yeah, and look around the room, the bean counters are not here, are they!"

At the conclusion of his comments the room erupted into a loud rumble of agreement, the sharks were circling. Jim and everyone else who ever uttered those sentiments are exactly right! The tail cannot wag the dog. Pilots, supervisors and mid-level management do not have the ability to change the way your organization conducts business. Jim and his coworkers may very well have solutions, but they do not have the authority to implement. Only the senior leadership, such as the CEO or president, can effect organizational change. Good or bad, senior leaders establish the culture of an organization. And that’s why it is so important for the rotorcraft community to focus effort on changing our culture. Changing culture really means a change of heart and a change of thought process. It starts at the top and to be effective must be aimed at changing the hearts of every employee in your organization.

By the way if you do not have a cooperative helicopter safety forum in your area and you are interested in developing one, contact one of the guys listed below to learn more about their meetings, how they work, and how to start one in your community.

Periodic meetings exactly like the one I describe are springing up all over. Operator-driven and resourced, the purpose of the meeting is to enhance safety in the helicopter community. These meetings are a cooperative effort, attended by individuals from local helicopter operators, including competitors. And it’s a good thing too. Most would agree we have room for improvement.

Cleveland Area Low Altitude Operators

Mr. Drew Ferguson of Metro Life Flight at: medfly244@yahoo.com

Toledo Area Low Altitude Operators

Mr. Stan Kocol of Toledo Life Flight at: stkocol@aircrane.org

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