"Promoting the science of aerospace medicine"

14th of March 2013

Putting Safety Into Context

If there is a drawback to the Internet, it is the overwhelming amount of information being created and disseminated. Anyone interested in anything can find more articles, blogs, e-newsletters, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, Instagram photos, Pinterest pins etc. about any subject, more than one person could possibly consume in a lifetime.

For those who work on aviation safety issues, this presents a problem. The easy solution in safety circles is to offer more information to those who might cause an accident. The hope, presumably, is that education and information dissemination will prevent accidents. Add more training to the mix and we should be able to lower the number of accidents dramatically. This does, incidentally, work for the airlines, which generally are a closed system that is somewhat easier to manage than individual pilots flying on their own.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work in the general aviation (GA) arena. GA accident rates in the U.S. average "about 1,500 a year, in which about 475 pilots and passengers are killed and hundreds more are seriously injured," according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Were it a simple matter of disseminating more information, the rate would have dropped by now. The Internet has been around and growing rapidly since the early 1990s. And pilots are early adopters of technology and voracious consumers of information in all of the above forms. Yet the accidents keep happening.

The NTSB is taking one step in the right direction, a meeting on March 12 in Washington, DC "to consider five Safety Alerts aimed at reducing the number of general aviation accidents." This meeting can be viewed online, too.

Here are the subjects:

◦Reduced-visual-reference accidents, including controlled flight into terrain and

uncontrolled descent to the ground due to spatial disorientation

◦Aerodynamic stalls at low altitude in daylight visual weather conditions

◦Pilot inattention to indications of mechanical problems

◦Risk management for aviation maintenance technicians

◦Risk management for pilots

But the problem is that these Safety Alerts are just going to be added to the deep pile of information available to pilots. Many pilots will read these Safety Alerts and take them to heart. The likely outcome is that pilots who need this information will ignore it. And many pilots will not even dig this far down in their piles of info-glut in time to read these before they do something stupid and kill someone.

NTSB researchers have their hands on a vast treasure trove of data, and this data should be turned into useful products like the proposed Safety Alerts. But the NTSB needs to go a step further and figure out a way to improve the dissemination and consumption of safety information by everyone involved in aviation. Instead of just piling another information product onto pilots, mechanics and others, how about designing a system that makes the information useful in context?

Here's my idea: you're preparing for an IFR flight. The conditions are: night, nearby mountainous terrain, marginal VFR to IMC weather over most of the route. When you submit your flight plan into Duats for a weather briefing, the Duats software automatically consolidates some relevant safety information for you. This information can be part of your risk-assessment process during preflight planning.

So, for the above flight, Duats provides not only a weather briefing but also the following information: a suggestion to determine a departure procedure that will keep you from hitting a mountain after takeoff; a summary of added risks of flying at night in marginal weather; and links to pertinent safety information that will help you not only understand the risks but know how to avoid them. This could include a small number of example accidents.

A similar tool could be created for mechanics. A mechanic about to do an annual inspection on a Cessna 310 would have a system to consolidate safety information that resides in various databases. Instead of hoping that this mechanic stumbles across, say, the FAA's Maintenance Alerts, which might have a submission about the 310, the mechanic would review key 310 problems identified in the FAA's Service Difficulty Reporting System database before starting the inspection. These reports could be combined with information provided by type clubs, which know a lot more than most mechanics about particular aircraft.

The NTSB does wonderful safety work; so does the FAA and organizations like the aviation alphabet groups and their foundations, type clubs and other groups. There is no shortage of safety-related publications (including the AINsafety e-newsletter). But there is a shortage of any way to make all this information meaningful, useful and useable. Anyone who can crack this nut will go down in aviation history as the solver of aviation's greatest problem.