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Modern safety management empowers every employee to speak up.

We’ve come a long way managing aviation safety since the early years.

I read that when aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle was on loan from the US Army in 1926 to perform flight demonstrations in his P-1 Hawk biplane in South America, he broke his ankles in a barroom stunt. With both ankles in casts, Dolittle had his mechanic bolt them to the rudder pedals. The flight demonstrations went well, and Doolittle returned to the States to spend time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to mend from his antics. That’s one version of the story, at least, and one worthy of campfire folklore.

In decades past, safety was a bottom-up approach: if the pilot or mechanic/engineer thought it reasonable, then managers didn’t balk. There was often an attempt to power through the situation. When all was good, such as in Doolittle’s stunt, the mechanic/engineer or pilot was hailed as a hero. If the attempt at safety failed, they were said to have made a poor decision. This haphazard approach to safety management was bad for everyone involved: companies, owners, shareholders, employees, pilots, and passengers alike.

Fast-forward to 2020. The buzz term in aviation safety today is “safety management system,” or SMS. It’s centered around decision-making, process improvement, and a positive safety culture, and it employs a top-down AND bottom-­up approach to managing safety.

Top-down is important because for SMS to be effective, an organization must have a positive safety culture, something that can’t be done without the buy-in of senior leadership. Everyone from the CEO down must endorse the company’s commitment to safety and a just culture. When the going gets rough—when the pilot turns down a flight because of weather or a mechanic/engineer grounds an aircraft—it’s crucial that management back their decisions. Ensuring flight safety must be prioritized over the company’s bottom line.

The bottom-up part of SMS comes in because it recognizes that safety isn’t just the responsibility of the pilot, the safety director, or any one person: it’s everyone’s job. SMS requires open communication about detecting hazards and managing risk, granting authority at all levels to point out safety concerns.

Often the mechanics/engineers in a flight department, especially if the company is small, are left to manage safety themselves, thinking issues through without any help from management. They often work alone without supervision and many times late at night to support the daytime flight schedule.

If you’re a manager, empower all your employees to feel free to speak up if they see something out of place or that doesn’t seem right. That puddle under the aircraft the flight nurse pointed out is probably water from the air-conditioning condenser, but what if it’s fuel? Your pilot thinks he might have exceeded a time limit for torque, so he writes it up and notifies the mechanic/engineer. A quick look at the exceedance page verifies he didn’t exceed a limit, but without the benefit of having a positive safety culture and SMS in place, that pilot may not have been comfortable speaking up.

If you’re a pilot, mechanic/engineer, or crew member, communicate with your managers to promote open channels of conversation and keep them informed of any challenges you may encounter doing your job. Your comments may help them to connect the dots and detect a safety hazard.

In aviation, we’re surrounded by people with type A personalities. We like to do it all ourselves. But collaboration can offer great solutions if you let it. Another term for this in our industry is “crew resource management”—using all available resources to achieve a desired result.

If you still doubt the importance of enforcing an SMS from top to bottom no matter the size of your business, I’ll leave you with this thought: if you think safety is expensive, try having an accident. Better yet, don’t.

Fugere tutum!

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Zac Noble

Zac Noble

Zac, HAI’s director of maintenance and technology, joined the association as its deputy director of flight operations and technical services after 11 years of flying in the air medical sector. A US Army veteran, Zac’s aviation career spans more than 35 years. He is a dual-rated ATP, a dual-rated CFII, and an A&P with IA privileges.