HAI Convention News

AgustaWestland Safety Award Goes To Instructor Pilot Chris Horton

 - February 27, 2014, 11:15 AM
CFI Chris Horton, winner of this year's AgustaWestland Safety Award, became interested in flight safety while he was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

Chris Horton, the recipient of the 2014 AgustaWestland Safety Award, is on a mission to “make safety sexy,” primarily to better reach his generation of pilots. “We’re pretty much glued to our iPhones, iPads, Facebook, Twitter,” he told AIN. “We get our news from social media. Safety education can be done that same way.” At 27, Horton is likely the youngest person to ever receive the HAI safety award.

He said the 20-something generation is more attuned to what he called “just-in-time education,” as opposed to “taking a trigonometry class in high school, because someday you might need it in your job. Now you learn because there’s something you need know now. You’re a new pilot and you need to know about safety management systems or risk mitigation or hazard reporting. That’s just-in-time education.”

Horton, who is rated in helicopters and airplanes and has just under 1,000 hours, became interested in aviation safety while a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he minored in safety science and focused on accident mitigation and safety program management. He was hired as a flight instructor by Prescott, Ariz.-based Guidance Aviation in 2010. He became manager of flight operations, where he is responsible for the operations of more than 100 full-time students, 20 flight instructors and some 300 weekly flights. Guidance has just over 50 employees and operates 16 helicopters.

SMS at Guidance Aviation

“His enthusiasm and intellect has allowed him to implement a methodical approach to the Safety Management System [SMS] that has changed the flight training culture at Guidance Aviation,” wrote John Stonecipher, president and CEO of Guidance Aviation, in his nomination of Horton for the Safety Award. “With a limited budget, Chris developed an introduction-to-SMS training program that focused on a ‘Just’ culture, safety reporting and the recognition of outstanding contributions to the SMS. He established three safety standdown days per year, each focusing on current safety initiatives.”

A company’s accountable executives need to be a part of the company’s SMS, Horton stressed. “While I appreciate the safety award, a lot of recognition for it needs to go to the executive team at Guidance Aviation. We have a chain of command, but we are a collaborative group. I can sit across the table from the CEO and say, ‘I think that’s a terrible idea,’ and he says, ‘Why?’ and listens. Sometimes he says, ‘You’re right, Chris, and we’re not going to do that,’ and other times he says, ‘You’re wrong and we’ll continue to do it my way.’ At least, I can voice my opinion. The executive team believes in having a true SMS. The company is doing it right.”

Horton said he wants helicopter operators “to know that when they hire a Guidance graduate or flight instructor that they know and understand SMS and that they believe in it. Safe habit patterns and professionalism are key components of the SMS. We teach these to our students in the beginning and we hope they carry these characteristics with them throughout the industry and their careers.”

Above and Beyond SMS

“I’d like to see safety education go above and beyond the basics of SMS,” Horton said. “We’ve all seen that model and kind of understand it. Let’s go beyond that and study the human brain. For example, if you teach how the brain handles stress and how the body reacts in a stressful situation, pilots will engage with that. It’s not boring. Then they’ll know what happens to their breathing, to their blood flow, what fatigue does to them. It’s a challenge, but it’s more interesting–it makes safety sexy–if the training is applicable.”

Horton was elected to his first term on the HAI Safety Committee in 2012 and immediately advocated for more use of social media. He said, “NBAA has a great Facebook presence. HAI has a mobile app for Heli-Expo, so why not a mobile app focused on safety? I’d like to see HAI using social media, too. It’s a new way to educate.”

And while he recognizes that HAI made a time-consuming office move last year, that it is short-staffed and that association committee members are all volunteers with jobs, he said, “The HAI website really needs to be revamped to make it more user-friendly. Guys my age go to the Internet for everything, but if a site’s not user-friendly or hard to navigate, they’re out. I hope by this time next year HAI will be able to announce a new website with social media involvement.”

The Safety Committee also asked Horton to work with the NTSB and industry leaders to develop a program outlining the hazards of texting and flying or having a cellular phone in the cockpit. “As an industry, I think we all understand that texting while flying is as bad as texting while driving,” he told AIN. “I started to do a white paper on this, but quickly realized that texting is really a no-brainer–there’s nothing new we can say about it. Really, the answer is ‘Don’t do it.’ Or if you have to do it, do it when you’re on the ground or have a two-pilot crew.”

So Horton told the Safety Committee that he thought the real topic is about distractions in aviation. “How do you teach paying attention to distractions in the cockpit? You can’t remove distractions, so how do you recognize when you’re being distracted by an iPad or a chart or a flashlight, and bring yourself back into the cockpit? That’s what’s critical,” he said.

Plugging the Rotor Safety Challenge

Finally, Horton encourages Heli-Expo attendees to participate in HAI’s Rotor Safety Challenge. “This is a way to learn something new. I think it is a great way for smaller operators, who can’t afford to send people to the professional classes before and after the show, to get a taste of some of the subjects covered,” he said. “And if you attend six sessions, you get a certificate of recognition that you can put on your wall and add to your resume. I encourage everyone to participate.”