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Safety Redefined

Pete Agur’s involvement with Business Aviation safety is more than professional. It’s personal- as he describes below.

Pete Agur   |   1st December 2013
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Pete Agur Pete Agur

Peter Agur Jr. is Chairman and Founder of VanAllen - a business aviation consultancy firm with...
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The Necessity of Being a Safety Geek.
Pete Agur’s involvement with Business Aviation safety is more than professional. It’s personal- as he describes below.

I have been a Safety Geek since December 6- 1968. That day was the first time I was shot down. It was also my first flight as a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. We were not in the midst of a harrowing act like extracting the wounded- or some other high risk venture. We were innocently flogging from one remote outpost to another carrying people and supplies. On the next-to-the-last leg of the day- instead of following the winding road to our destination- we cut a corner to save time…right over the top of an enemy antiaircraft site.

It only took one shot. We went down through the tall jungle trees. My aircraft commander’s skill- prayers and luck got us through it with only minor injuries inflicted upon the four crew and two passengers. For the next four hours we scrambled through the heavy undergrowth- avoiding the enemy- as we worked our way towards friendly territory. After making contact with a search plane- we were hoisted out of the jungle at 9pm- surrounded by rocket and tracer fire- into a black night lit by a huge full moon.

As the rescue ship beat its way home- I thought- “A whole year. It’s going to be like this for a whole year. If I’m going to survive- I’d better get really good at this…fast!” I had become a Safety Geek.

Life-Long Evolution
For the next 35+ years I followed the same path to “Safety” that all aviators before me had travelled: I studied accident and incident reports to discover what not to do. By definition- if you had no incidents or accidents- you were Safe. Most of us knew this wasn’t really true. We knew many pilots had merely been lucky- so far. But- the traditional Safety metric of “accident rate” (accidents per hundred thousand flight hours) was the best we had- until a decade ago.

About ten years ago- a group of Canadians connected the dots between management techniques for quality assurance and Safety. Transport Canada became the clearing house for what evolved into today’s Safety Management System (SMS). SMS is the systematic- comprehensive process of managing risks. By identifying significant and probable risks- then creating strategies and methods for mitigating those risks- aviation professionals on the ground and in the air are able to proactively raise the likelihood of the desired outcome: safe arrivals.

When I read the early articles describing SMS- I knew we were no longer driving safely by looking in the rear-view mirror. We were actually now looking forward to avoid bad situations. SMS has caused a major change to the definition and metrics of Safety. The old definition of ‘Safe’ was black and white: no damage and no injuries meant you were Safe. Today ‘Safe’ has 50- or more- shades of gray.

The Process of Managing Safety
Like all quality control processes- SMS is a work in progress. At first it focused on flight. Today we understand SMS should be integrated into all elements of the Aviation Services business unit: policies- processes- practices- capital assets- and staff performance within the management- administration- scheduling- maintaining and flying areas.

We also know SMS metrics are in their infancy. They are underdeveloped and frequently misapplied. Even so- the proactive focus of SMS today is far superior to the reactive view of failure avoidance.

An illustration of the difference between the old and new definitions of Safety is a conversation I had with the Chief Counsel of a Fortune 100 company. Their Director of Aviation had been accused of operating unsafely. The attorney wanted me to confirm this was correct so he could make an easy case for dismissal. I could not do that. Much to his chagrin I explained that risks were raised inappropriately- but I would not state that the operation was ‘unsafe’. The company’s lack of metrics and documentation would not support the allegation.

The proper metric would have described- and captured- an accumulation of unmitigated risks for any specific flight leg and how that measurement (i.e.- the risk “score”) compared to an established internal standard. If the accrued score exceeded the established hurdle- it would have required further mitigation actions- including the potential delay or cancellation of the flight.

Board Responsibilities
As a Board Member- it is important for you to understand the status of your organization’s Aviation Service’s Safety program:

• Is a Safety Management System in place and routinely used?

• In addition to Flight Operations- does your SMS include Ground and Maintenance Operations (Ground Operations are the greatest source of Aviation Services insurance claims)?

• Does Flight Operations conduct a Management Review of trip legs and assign a risk score? A manager must review the trip leg with the crew when a risk score exceeds the self-dispatch approval of a crew’s flight. A review rate of 0% is not likely.

• What trip legs incur the greatest risks- and what are the tactics being used to mitigate those risks?

> High risk airports like Aspen may be on the short list. Mitigation tactics would include daylight and low-wind operations only.
> Certain passenger combinations (e.g.- CEO and COO on the same flight) would be another. Mitigations could include splitting the passenger group- using a two-captain crew and raising the weather minimums for operations.

One thing has not changed with the implementation of SMS: Safety starts at the top. The goals you set and the standards you approve empower your aviation professionals to perform to the highest standards. Leading edge implementation of SMS defines the new definition of Safety.

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