Beyond the “Stupid Pilot” View of Safety!

You have undoubtedly encountered the “stupid pilot” statistic endlessly repeated during safety meetings: human error is responsible for 80% of aviation accidents. This statistic is true if you only study and quantify aviation accidents but this is a very small part of aviation activity. This short-sighted methodology is like “studying divorce to understand marriage.” An obsession with errors and omissions – “never do this” – is a reactive, command and control approach to safety – a “whack a mole” strategy with no end. It ignores the fact that most of the time in aviation, things go right! And undervaluing the positive pilot contribution leads increasingly to engineering the pilot out of the cockpit and losing the largest contributor to flight safety – the pilot. Positive progress in safety requires not just “focusing out harm” but empowering and enabling pilots to be resilient and successful more of the time.  Proactive “Safety 2.0” works with this bigger picture and puts the pilot as the center.

In Focusing [Just] On What Pilots Do Wrong, We May Be Missing Valuable Lessons From What They Quietly Do Right -FORBES

Dr. Jon Holbrook, at NASA, terms this approach “productive safety,” and examines all the ways pilots actively contribute to safety during complex and challenging operations. “For every well-scrutinized accident, there are literally millions of flights in which things go right, and those flights receive very little attention,” said Holbrook. “Safety 2.0” deconstructs the expert performance of “things going right”  and provides a bigger toolbox of safety strategies. Studied in this manner, pilots are the constantly active “fixers,” flexing and changing plans to create greater safety during an ongoing process of monitoring and maintaining margins. When was the last time one of your flights went exactly as planned?

When we analyze “all flight activity,” safety requires constant awareness and the continuous creative modification during preplanned missions. These are most often not herculean interventions but small continuous changes adapting to unforeseen challenges. Safety 2.0 leverages this more positive focus rather than trying to create a beautiful statue by reassembling the broken pieces. Since I first wrote about “Safety 2.0” a year ago there has been tremendous progress in this field (everywhere but in aviation!) See “Doing Safety Differently” for examples of this approach in other industries.

A command and control view of an incident depicts this check airman as a stupid pilot whereas a more productive “Safety 2.0” approach might actually reveal how automation defeated the efforts of a cautious pilot crew that ultimately resolved the confusing situation safely!  This YouTube leverages Safety 2.0 in the medical world.  Fly safely (and often)


“Checkride Ready!™” is on the (newly updated) SAFE App this week. (If you have it installed, just close and reopen for updated app.) This new section is directed toward pilot applicants and shares the common problems DPEs see repeatedly on check rides (pink slip). Download the (free) SAFE App. today!

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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