AIN Blog: Are Safety Management Systems Over-regulation or a Necessary Evil?

 - August 19, 2011, 8:27 AM

The older I get the more I find reality forces me to take solace in the reminiscence of the good old days. Take, for instance, the impending requirements for aviation safety management systems. SMS takes up more than its share of bandwidth on the grid, and it is a smarmy technobabble term that makes me emotionally curl up in a fetal position clutching my IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter.

Depending upon whose Facebook page shows up in your inbox via some Tweet, the SMS is either the work of the devil or it’s the greatest thing since some scientist stuck electrodes into piles of cheese and Velveeta stepped forth.

My earliest awareness of aviation was in the early 1960s, when I’d take my high school sweetheart to O’Hare Airport in my fire-engine red Sunbeam Alpine. If we turned off the highway into the fire station and drove around back, we could park right next to the runway and watch jets land a couple hundred feet away. It turns out we were parking on a seldom-used taxiway feeder, yet only one time did anyone drive out and shoo us away.

I learned to fly at a time when common sense was good enough; and flying was a heck of a lot more fun. It turns out 1969 was a good year to learn to fly in Chicago, as it wouldn’t be long before someone would dream up terminal control areas and all the fun would start to drain out of flying.

While attending graduate school at the University of Illinois, I met Louis E. “Watcha” McCollum, and he would change my life forever. Mac bought and sold used corporate aircraft and he always needed a copilot. He also eschewed FAA regulations and refused to get a Part 135 charter certificate, so he actually signed logbook entries for the likes of Phyllis Diller and Bob Hope, who we occasionally flew as “student pilots” in a Learjet 23. Evil Knievel was one of our regular students. Mac was the bad boy of aviation that everyone loved to hate, and I was a young Vietnam vet reliving the adrenalin rush and soaking it all up.

The deal was you could fly with him anytime, but he didn’t pay; you did it to build hours and gain experience. Over the years I logged five hours in everything ever built and 10 hours in nothing. The first time I ever sat in a jet was in the original Cessna Citation. We used to joke it was the only jet that took bird strikes from behind. While maintaining that cool, calm, square-jawed pilot exterior, I was so excited about getting to fly a jet I almost jumped out of my skin.

Mac always cut out unnecessary overhead, like maintenance and training. He handed me the Citation’s manual, told me to study it, then said we’re flying a trip to Salt Lake City the next day. “Professor,” he said (he always called me “professor,” because I was in grad school), “you go home, learn the numbers and get back here first thing in the morning with a flight plan.”

How could anyone ever forget the sensation of taking off a jet for the first time? Mac sat there ever vigilant and talked me through it from engine start to 10,000 feet. Then he looked at me and said, “Professor, you’ll never die in a midair.”

I was thrilled that this man I so greatly respected, this man who held 36 type ratings, would say that to me. Then he added, “You’re so far behind this airplane you won’t even hear it when it happens.”

Over the years I flew DC-3s, DC-6s, Learjet 23s and 24s, Jet Commanders and some classics like a Howard 500. When Mac had a single-pilot aircraft that had to be moved, he assigned me the trip. I’d never seen a Beech Duke when he told me to fly it to Minneapolis. When I asked for a check-out he pointed to my beloved Cessna 421 and said, “If you can fly one of those, you can fly one of these. You want the trip or should I find someone else?”

It was the most interesting and exciting five years of my life. It was splattered with engine fires, ferrying a Learjet 24 with the gear locked down, flying a Jet Commander over the North Atlantic, from Paris to Burbank, Calif., in the dead of winter and what may be the Guinness Book of World Records entry for the only flight in a Cessna 310 with three engine failures. Aviation was like the Wild West: anything goes. It was, after all, the good old days.

Mac, another good friend and a third pilot died in a Hansa Jet in 1984, after mistakenly turning onto a short runway in the dark at Aberdeen, S.D. They were over gross with an airplane full of auto parts they were delivering.

In all, 13 of my good friends lost their lives in aviation from 1969 until 1984, every one in a preventable accident caused by human error. Maybe those weren’t such good old days after all.

On second thought, it’s probably time to give this SMS thing a chance.


Yes, those accidents were preventable as are most aviation accidents. However, I don't think that another book setting on the shelf (an SMS that happens to cost around $25000.00) would have made any difference! Your friend already had a set of regulations (FAR's that costs nothing) that prohibited them from taking off over gross.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the SMS programs, just against the government sponsored extortion by some governments like Bermuda which requires FAA registered aircraft to be IS-BAO (Total cost around $25000.00), well beyond current ICAO/EASA requirements. ICAO should publish in regulatory form exactly what is required in an acceptable SMS program as it appears that they are in the process of doing.

"Are Safety Management Systems Over-regulation or a Necessary Evil? "

Real answer is neither. SMS is about having better control of one's organization with resulting safety and greater profitability. The phrasing of the question acknowledges the tired old "safety vs productivity mentality that has often relegated safety to departmental status. When the impact of the "accountable official" aspect of an SMS finally sinks in, company heads should see their requirement for ongoing personal involvement.

SMS is a core business function, eminently scalable, that answers three questions for a business; "Is my system capable of operating safely, within regulations, and profitably?" is the first one.

The second question is "Are we following our system as designed?"

The third is "Are we operating safely, in compliance with regulations, and profitably?"

A company can engage in minimal, or even malicious compliance to keep the feds at bay, but to do so is to turn an opportunity for real improvement into an expensive burden.

Latest best guess on publication of the 121 rule is September 3.

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