Expert Commentary

Aviation Risk Management: Look at the Pilots

Clear, meaningful, and helpful communication and aviation safety are essential partners. Yet, many pilots struggle to ask for help when they need it most. Likewise, risk managers sometimes fail to see human factors as the final frontier in aviation claims mitigation.


Corporate Aviation
November 2016

If an insurance company could build a crystal ball, it would focus on how the crew is doing. It would look at what they actually do versus what they purport to do or what the Federal Aviation Administration says they enforce them to do. Having safety as a mindset in the fiber of your being is different from owning a great manual or policies.

And, let's face it, pilots have easy-to-see stressors: job security, an emotionally sterile environment, and not to mention mission completion pressures.

The Psychology of Aviation Safety

Dr. John Gottman identified "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt) approach to couples therapy to help couples assess their relationship.1 And crew pairs have more in common with a committed couple than you might think. Sure, we have a Safety Measurement System and the rest of it, but some crew pairings are awful. Any professional pilot will tell you they've flown with people in a fair bit of pain and how it leaked out. Whether they were inflicting or receiving, it diminished the safety tenets of crew performance.

The Root of the Problem

If you want to use "happiness" or "quality of life" as a benchmark, we all are struggling. Whether it is obesity, hypertension, depression, or diabetes, it can seem overwhelming. Overworked bodies and minds, fragmented families, and lonely individuals hurt performance. There is no denying this powerful, simple, and obvious truth.

Business Aviation Safety: Let's Do Better

Why not turn this trend around and make the art of navigating and flying safer, too? A basic correlation: if a society is a bit sick, then those in safety-sensitive jobs are a little sick, too. Imagine catching such problems before they affected actual and not simulated operations. What if you could predict who would most likely crack up an airplane—whether a runway overrun, loss of control, or an avoidable controlled flight into terrain. All accidents (today) are avoidable, and nearly all are related to human factors. We need to know people.

Before you fly your first turboprop or jet aircraft, you'll be sent to a simulator school. The school will ensure that you fly your King Air B200, Phenom 300, or Cessna Citation CJ 4 to a standard. What isn't included in that standard is your emotional health. They get paid to make sure you can fly. But they don't get paid to look at your bedside manner. The main priority is that you train to the procedures and can meet the requirements of an exam.

"How else can you explain that someone who is a total asshole can still be typed rated in a 737, or worse, their own CJ 4?" once said by an anonymous simulator instructor in 2013.

Instead, why not build a curriculum that includes careful screening for what we know is trouble? If we did, it would sound a lot like the therapist's couch. The following communication examples are easy to recognize.

Criticism: "Who the hell taught you that? How did you pass your checkride?"

Defensiveness: "Yes, I heard the controller, but YOU were supposed to remind me." (After being called out for an oversight.)

Stonewalling: "<silence/no answer/seething under breath>"

Contempt: "You are an idiot, only an idiot would think that."

Ever noticed that a certain personality pairs badly with many and that first officers don't last long with them? Repairing and eliminating harsh exchanges is key to a low-risk human factors environment. Why would you let anything else slide?

Consider contempt with a rapidly evolving technological landscape. Then add the increased gulf between basic flying and near complete automation. It is no wonder that human factors are the last frontier of safety. Alienation impairs aviation safety, and the best audits will provide a way to look for the four points above.

Aviation safety and crew resource management are simple when looked at objectively. Just like the rest of us, pilots have the same emotional vulnerabilities. When it comes to your air crew, look for the stressors and the four horsemen. Address them immediately. You won't regret it.


1 See "Problem Personalities in the Air" from February 2016.


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