In 2020 I re-entered the world of professional aviation; we had all been in lockdown – and at home scrolling through Facebook I’d seen an advert for the National Police Air Service. I hadn’t flown for over 5 years but I comfortably had the experience they were looking for. I applied via an online process which included a Skype interview – my intent was 100%; my self-belief? about 10%. I simply had not been involved in the industry; safety in aviation is often correlated to recency of operators, and is not always about experience per se. Plenty of experienced pilots make mistakes… with tragic consequences. Anyway, they offered me the job.
Flying the helicopter is the easy bit. But safely navigating human behaviours? That’s more difficult. Healthy doses of humility, spoon-fed frequently, are required. And continue to be required. I was very excited and keen to be flying again but I wasn’t going to take this lightly. And, to be honest, I realised that the organisation which I had joined does not have a learning culture outside of its own safety management and reporting system (SMS).
I took to self-educating myself and finding all manner of accident and incident reports online for Police and HEMs helicopters around the world. I then started reading about aviation safety… and watching YouTube videos and a world of internet content – I was really heartened by what I found! There is some fantastic developments in the understanding of safety, performance, CRM (Crew Resource Management), Flight Risk Assessment models etc. What intrigued me most was the work of Erik Hollnagel and Sidney Dekkar in the concepts of resilience and Safety II. These are scholarly people. I could only interpret and extract the basic elements of their concepts. But it really resonated with me – because, in the context of their work, if you simply replace the word ‘safety’ with ‘quality’ then you also acquire a whole load of concepts that work for improving business and employee performance.
I had previously already discovered and begun to understand these concepts through my business and employee development. Analysing why something went wrong with a client’s contract (usually when an employee didn’t meet the client’s expectations) never really led to useful understanding and lessons. Because human behaviours get in the way – fear basically – fear of admitting mistakes, and an ingrained aversion to being open about anything that might threaten personal security, confidence and status.
But talking about the contracts that went right was always much easier! Emphasising and learning what went right, and how to apply it every time, was a more successful path of reinforcing and cementing good habits and standards.
Anyway, back to aviation: in late 2022 I attended a Flight Safety Course run by the UK Flight Safety Committee. I was excited. Then, when I attended, fairly quickly became disappointed. The content of the course was just a bit typical of the usual concepts that I remember from the last 20 years in the RN. There was no learning path, no suggestions for wider reading, no meaningful attempts at examining recent developments and concepts in Safety. Unfortunately, it was very much along the following format: ex military pilot with (X-000s of hours) stands up in front of the audience and speaks confidently about safety in various contexts. It was all very firmly SAFETY I – ie looking for what went wrong. Whilst this of course has value, I don’t believe it’s the whole picture. And the problem with churning out the same content, the same (swiss cheese) models and the same case-studies is that we stagnate; our openness deteriorates, we become numb to the messages; we become complacent.
It’s time to look for things that go right as well as looking at the old chestnuts of wrongness , error and violations. Learning new ideas and how to do things well is inspiring – and largely unexplored.
Part 2 of this blog is a copy of an article I wrote for an internal newsletter and builds on these concepts.