Normalization of Deviance

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Safety Management System Programs, monthly safety meetings, and annual safety stand down, add to these effective initiatives along with some eye-catching posters and safety related articles strategically placed throughout the offices hangar and flight planning area.  Maybe even a comprehensive survey of your flight department from your aviation insurance company along with safety audits from outside entities. To make these efforts and their recommendations effective, what else is required? My experience has taught me that open, honest thoughtful and timely communication is the ingredient that makes these programs work.

Take for example the IMSAFE risk assessment checklists.  These are really good preflight planning tools, But (here is the BUT) – Do you ritualistically rush through them? Or just make sure the totals are below the threshold for notifying or seeking approval from a higher authority to conduct your flight? Consider a pause when going through the self-assessment checklist and why not take a moment to really discuss some of the items with your copilot/co-captain, or if single pilot, have that moment where you really look at yourself and the personal challenges that you have recently encountered.  The F in IMSAFE…as an example, Fatigue.  Discuss what was the quality of sleep/rest prior to flying, rather than the oblatory “I’m good, lets go…”  An increased operational tempo can also be equally tiring and lead to a chronic condition. As pilots, we are in a leadership role and must not forget the rest of the team.  Consider your maintenance personnel…have they worked long hours into the night to prepare your aircraft for an early departure? Perhaps you might consider delaying your departure and providing your maintainers with a period of rest or waiting until their relief is available. 

Normalization of Deviance.  Flying while fatigued is risky, constantly flying in marginal weather takes a could take toll you; perhaps you have got away with it before.  Conducting a flight VFR in marginal conditions even though you’ve done it many times…and got away without an accident, may also not be the best decision. When we continue to push the envelope and continue to “get away with it”, we get caught in an illusion and a false sense of security.  This is normalization of deviance and was identified in the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy.  Evidence was presented about faulty parts but several launches were continued anyway.  We know the outcome of this trap.  If weather could be a factor for your flight, consider alternatives such as operating IFR, or delaying the flight.  If your destination doesn’t have an instrument approach, consider an alternate and using ground transportation to make the connection, and of course, you can postpone or cancel the flight. Never forget you have the power of NO!

We are generally entrusted to fly these extremely complex and expensive machines not solely for our exceptional stick and rudder skills, but our ability to exercise exceptional judgment and keep our aircraft, passengers, and ourselves out of harms way at all times.  Postponing or cancelling a flight and waiting for a favorable change in the weather could very well be the best option.  This is where the open, honest, and TIMELY communication principles are imperative.  The earlier the principal knows of potential delaying situations and your efforts to still have the assigned mission completed the better.  Remember we are the first and last link in the accident chain, and using sound judgement reviewing all the negative factors use that superior judgement and make the right call.

Remember, please be careful out there.  Be safe.  Communicate, have fun, and enjoy our unique profession as helicopter pilots.

Joe Turosky

Joe is a retired Naval Aviator who has flown CH53’s in the US Marine Corps and HH65A’s in the US Coast Guard. (Seen below in NY Harbor circa 1988).   Joe was also a T-34 Instructor at NAS Pensacola.  In his next career Joe worked in the aircraft insurance industry and as an International Captain, operating business jets all over the globe.