Changing The Meaning Of CYA In Flight Safety

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I will address three problem areas of Flight Safety, so please bear with me while we get through this article "mishap free" together. First, safety is hard ... to measure. Accidents, or lack of them, are not necessarily valid measures of "being safe." Second, I will argue that safety is something that all aircrews should accomplish everyday when they fly and execute their missions. Sometimes we fail. But the important point is that safety is not separate and distinct, rather it should be an indistinguishable part of the flying mission. Third, leadership at all levels, either directly or indirectly, is the second biggest factor for our aircrew to safely accomplish their missions. By briefly reviewing these issues, I want to help FSOs change the meaning of "CYA." 

Safety is not hard to do, but it is hard to measure. There are practical problems that drive our safety shops (and the leadership that directs them) into working towards "high and unachievable goals." It's a seemingly unsolvable problem that safety is difficult to measure. As pilots, we want objectives that are clear and quantifiable. Safety, on the other hand, has problems in this area and if forced into our mold, can quickly become ineffective or counterproductive to accomplishing our mission. For instance, when asked "What's your greatest safety accomplishment?" I'll argue that most of us don't really know. The obvious answers might be limping a plane back with battle damage (or a bird strike,) landing a jet single-engine, or single-handedly keeping a wingman from making himself part of the countryside. I would challenge that each of you has done much more than that, so stop right now and pat yourself on the back. I would guess that in any given year of flying, every aviator stops more mishaps than can be counted. 

The problem is we don't know that we've stopped these mishaps. One afternoon at the squadron bar you gave some advice, or told a personal story to a young wingman that emphasized the importance of not going craniums down in a low-altitude turn. As Top-Three, you stepped a four-ship and made a comment about new range restrictions that materialized while the pilots were briefing to fly. You gave a young IP advice about how to alter his students' profiles when airspace, weather, or the student weren't what was planned. During a pilot meeting, an ops officer tells his squadron that during upcoming surge operations (where pilots would fly three times a day and four days a week) that it's "their call" to not fly when they're too tired. 

In an alternate universe where these seemingly inconsequential things were not done, a wingman hit the ground trying to plot while he was in a turn at 500 feet, the four-ship strafed an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) crew that was not on the original range schedule, the young IP watches a young flight lead upgrade impact the ground during off target maneuvering on an unplanned low-altitude Close Air Support (CAS) sortie. Lastly, one pilot damages an Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) pod during taxi on his eleventh flight in four days, while another manages to unintentionally shoot a 2.75-inch rocket off the range due to a switch error on his twelfth flight of the week. In our own universe though, nothing actually happened. 

As an FSO, I can't measure these proactive actions that resulted in the lack of a mishap. What we tend to focus on are the reactive measures. An accident happens; we find the causal factors and determine how to possibly avoid the same thing when similar circumstances arise again. We rarely measure accidents that don't happen or why they didn't happen, because it's almost impossible to gauge. So aviators mostly associate safety with things that went wrong and ended badly; instead of the safe decisions and actions that we executed hundreds, if not thousands of times since the last quarterly safety meeting. 

The next problem with safety is its division into a separate and distinct category in our lives, our jobs and the flying missions that we execute. All of the situations outlined above fall into my personal definition of "safety." Maybe not what we think of everyday as "safety," but nonetheless, I argue that these situations are the very basis of safety. With our leadership's delegation of safety to the lowest level, we ought to unconsciously "be safe," every time we brief, fly, debrief and even talk tactics at the squadron bar--it's not a separate subject. It should be infused into what we do everyday. 

Far too often, we execute safety practices as "square fillers," instead of as an attitude. For instance, a computerized ORM sheet that pilots fill out (and is never really referenced) might be far less effective than a simple look in the eye by a Top-Three, who uses what he sees and hears to help with that flight's risk reduction measures. The former will look better in a UCI but fails at the most basic level ... the intent of ORM. So, why hasn't ORM been explained as something that we've always done? In this example, ORM simply provides a formal framework to help ensure that we don't miss the identification of risks, hazards and ways to mitigate them. 

When ORM ceases to do these things and is simply a checklist, we've taken a step backwards, not forwards. When we divide safety into a separate category, we cloud rather than clarify. Every time we make safety into a quarterly meeting, a specific topic of the flight briefing, a job, or a special qualification, we further reduce its effectiveness. This is because we subconsciously fail to accept the responsibility for this all-encompassing aspect of our flying missions and delegate it to an outside shop or agency. This is ludicrous, since we all have a safe flight in mind from the time we start to plan until we finish the debrief. Taken in this context, we cause the idea of "safety" to be something left behind at the Ops desk after we step to the aircraft. 

Where did I get this last premise, that safety is something we do--not a job, an office, a program, or a checklist? The answer is quite simple: my leadership. Over the past decade, some of them were gruff, some were quiet, some were flight leads while others were wingmen, some were squadron CCs and ops officers, some were weapons officers, while others were actually no-kidding safety officers. Some talked openly about safety, while the best of them ... I can't even remember them mentioning the word. Leadership, at all levels, is the second-most important issue affecting flying safety in a unit. Leadership, both formal and informal, does this in many ways. A weapons officer explains how to properly execute a specific tactic, a life support officer provides quality instruction during hanging harness and egress training, a flight commander schedules his people for appropriate upgrades and lastly, the ops officer gives his aircrews the obligation to "make the call." 

So, why do I say that leadership is the second most important factor in safety? I say this simply because the aircrew must be the most important factor. Our leadership can only give us flyers the necessary atmosphere, culture and tools to "be safe." Aviators have to understand the problem, understand that they have the power to affect change, and be willing to accept the responsibility and act upon issues that are identified. So, here's what I propose: aircrew and their leadership at all levels, must "CYA," or "Change Your Attitude." I would argue that we, as aviators, don't actually have too far to go. As I've explained, we've been doing it all along. Of course, we can always improve and your safety shop can help. But, the attitude that needs changing is treating "safety" as a separate entity within our flying operations. If aircrews simply realize that we're already doing it, then I think we're more likely to internalize this "feeling" and know when it's absent. If we educate aircrew, and leadership
gives them "the keys to the car," then I think they will better understand and internalize "safety." Here is what safety is not: It's not a quarterly meeting,
it's not filling out an ORM sheet prior to step, it's not signing off the Blue 4 News, and it's not leadership
saying one thing while meaning another. OK, there I've said it. In a perfect world I wouldn't have a desk job, because each of you would naturally be doing it for me (and I think that most of you do). Lastly, I used the word "safety" or "safe" forty times in this article. As a new FSO, I hope to use the word as little as possible in my new job. Each time I catch myself saying the word, I know that I've somehow separated the idea of safety into a separate category instead of a part of my life, job and mission. Enough said ... Fly Safe.