Nascar crews embrace SMS

 - March 7, 2007, 10:26 AM

After a Hendrick Motorsports King Air 200 crashed into Bull Mountain on Oct. 24, 2004, while attempting a missed approach at Martinsville/Blue Ridge Airport in Virginia, Nascar race team flight departments took a fresh look at the safety of their operations. The result has been increasing interest in the concept of safety management systems (SMS), with Nascar hosting its first SMS safety summit late last year at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

The Summit was the brainchild of Phil Randall, deputy national manager of the FAA’s new FAASTeam safety program. Based at the FAA’s Greensboro, N.C. FSDO, Randall interacts frequently with Nascar race team flight departments. More than 100 race team pilots and mechanics and local FAA inspectors attended the event.

“We need to start looking at some things differently from the way we have in the past,” said Bill Williams, aviation division director with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, as he kicked off the day’s presentations. “We can help you keep the image that you want to have.”

Jim Ballough, FAA director, Flight Standards Service, reminded race team flyers that the meeting was about exchanging information, although he added, “Usually the ones we’re trying to reach don’t come to these events.”

He compared the current state of aircraft operations to the systems approach race teams use to manage their expensive chariots. “We need to transition from the old fix-and-fly model,” he said, “to be more prognostic. Look at how safe racing is today. It’s a systems approach. Nothing on a race car goes without an engineering review; it’s a team effort.”

That framework is similar to the systems approach to safety that SMS espouses. “SMS,” he said, “you already know it. Think of automated data. That’s a systems approach. Tear apart your engine. That’s a systems approach. It’s now time to move that to flying.”

Before the SMS Summit, Ballough got a tour of a race team flight department that performs a risk assessment before each flight. The result is that some airports that the company used to fly to are off limits because of the assessment. “That’s music to my ears,” he said.

Commenting on the recently released FAA Advisory Circular on SMS (AC 120-92), Ballough said, “This is leading-edge stuff. It will be up to you to take that message back to your organizations.”

Wes Timmons, the FAA’s SMS oversight manager, told attendees that “as you develop a good safety management system, we’re going to spend less time with you. SMS identifies hazards, using a hazard-tracking system. You do a risk assessment when making changes. It is your system for how you manage safety.” All decisions involving risk are made, he explained, based on actual measurable data.

“This is doable,” said Lou Sorrentino, senior vice president of consultant SH&E. “This is where we raise the bar of safety and quality above the regulations.”

Sorrentino introduced the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO), explaining that it offers a cost-effective way to implement an SMS. What he has found is that as race team flight departments have grown, their infrastructure has not kept up. “Standard operating procedures are generally lacking,” he said. “You need to make sure it’s bulletproof.” He recommends not adopting the attitude of one director of operations, who told him that after the cabin door closes, the flight crew is totally on its own. “You are hurling passengers through space and time in a pressurized tube,” he said. “You need to say, ‘We need to get our act together.’”

The big mistake that many aviators make, Sorrentino concluded, is thinking that safety is achieved by not having accidents. “The absence of accidents or incidents is not necessarily an indication of a safe operation.”

One attendee wasn’t so happy with the SMS Summit. “I think it was weak,” said Wayne Cook, aviation director of Joe Gibbs Racing’s flight department, which operates a Learjet, Gulfstream I and Saab 2000. Cook brought pilots, mechanics and flight attendants to the meeting. “I think the FAA is too active in conducting meetings, and it could have been done in half the time.” Cook said that although the SMS concept was discussed, he didn’t come away feeling as if he understood it well and that he wasn’t aware that the FAA had published an advisory circular on SMS. He recommended that the FAA simply make a presentation on AC 120-92 and explain how to implement an SMS.