Aviation “safety’s in a rut,” Dr. Tony Kern told attendees at the Bombardier Safety Standdown in Wichita this fall. The key to getting out of that rut, he said, is to make pilots realize they can’t rest on today’s safety record. Kern is the CEO of Convergent Performance, a Colorado-based human-performance consulting company, and the author of seven books on human performance.
Kern believes that two decades of social engineering focused on making everyone believe they are as good at everything as everyone else has led to a climate in which no one really expects anyone’s best efforts. In a safety-focused industry like aviation, that attitude can get people killed. “Look at our check-ride system,” he said. “Almost no one fails a check ride anymore. Is it because everyone has become such a great pilot?”
Kern expressed concern that people have lost that gut feeling that warns us when something’s not right, even though we may not be able to clearly identify the threat. He worries that pilots often ignore those gut feelings and need to focus on a deep awareness of the flying environment–first self-awareness and then situational awareness–he said. “I don’t know what the Asiana guys were thinking about as they approached San Francisco. But I can tell you they weren’t focusing on altitude and airspeed,” Kern said. Deep awareness asks questions like, “What am I thinking about right now?” and “What should I be thinking about right now?” and “Why am I not thinking about what I should be right now?”
The coming “big crew change,” the exodus of much of the experienced pilot population from the workforce in the next five years, will create an experience vacuum, and someone needs to mentor new aviators, said Kern. “You can deny your weaknesses, or you can simply admit them. If we deny them, they will hurt us. At least if we admit them we have a chance to improve things for everyone.”
Awareness of the environment includes being prepared for dangers that have not been identified yet, said Kern. “We recognized the dangers in authoritarian captains years ago. That created crew resource management systems. Then there was wind shear. We’ve learned to successfully adapt to these threats. But what are we not adapting too? Sure there’s the changing automation landscape. What we fly with in five years will probably make what we’re using now look primitive. There’s NextGen airspace, the big crew change and a wildly fluctuating economy.” Kern believes we also waste a valuable resource: a review of all the tasks we routinely perform. “We need to learn to embrace change with a big bear hug. If we don’t, there’s someone else around you who will.”
Kern says too many people believe the FAA will come out with a new rule that will change the standards if we need to improve. He says it’s our responsibility. “Check for [your own] competence, train for excellence, practice precision and picture perfection. That will put you in touch with the natural cycle of excellence.”