1 in 5 biz jet pilots are stupid?

Ripped from the aviation press headlines: One in five business jet pilots don’t do a full flight-control check before takeoff.

Actually one in five is a bit of an exaggeration. The would be 20%. The more precise number is 17.66%. And that’s actually a per-flight percentage, so maybe the percentage of pilots is a little less. But WTF Batman! 17.66%?

You may have read about the fatal 2014 Gulfstream G-IV crash caused by the crew not doing a flight-control check and then trying to takeoff with the gust lock engaged. Well, now the airmanship onion has been peeled back a layer. Seems the NTSB wanted to play a deeper game. Rather than quickly blame ‘bad apple’ pilots and pretend everything else is OK, they made an interesting research recommendation. They suggested the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) work with business aviation flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) groups to use existing recorders to analyze how frequently crews comply with manufacturer-required routine flight-control checks before takeoff. They wanted a peek behind the cockpit curtain.

The NBAA actually did it. Accessed and analyzed the data for suitably equipped jets for the years 2013, 2014, 2015. And now the report is online. I think it’s required reading.

That rust-red line is the noncompliance rate. Which for the 143,756 flights was 17.66%. The NBAA says this gives them “reason to pause”. No kidding. They also blandly conclude:

This report should further raise awareness within the business aviation community that complacency and lack of procedural discipline have no place in our profession.

The issue of course is that in reality not following SOP has found a place in the profession. These data are from the flight departments that have active FOQA programs, flight departments that pass safety inspections and appear very different from the kind of ‘cowboy’ operators that you might imagine more likely to ignore basic safety checks. Just telling pilots to follow the rules is no longer going to cut it. NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt is quoted in AW&ST talking about noncompliance:

There is a saying, ‘You can fool the auditors, but never fool yourself.’

The NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen described the findings as “perplexing”. But has issued no comprehensive plan to reduce the 17.66 number.

My take?

I don’t care how much of a hurry you are in. Unless someone is literally firing shots at you—follow all basic safety procedures. I don’t care how good your maintenance department is. Unless you are in the Blue Angels (edit: the Blue’s don’t do a walk-around, but yes, they do a flight control check) or launching a quick alert military response—follow all basic safety procedures. Working on the 0.1% stuff is hard. It’s the work of inner art of airmanship. But working on the 17% stuff should be easy. That’s just basic stay-alive airmanship.

I’m too disgusted by this report to write much more. It’s beyond time to take SOP non-compliance seriously. Maybe fund more research into the real reasons why humans do this behavior? Maybe work on better SOPs? I believe there are four broad reasons why pilots don’t comply with standard operating procedures. They are derived and described in a paper published by Safety Science journal: An empirically derived taxonomy of pilot violation behavior by English (yes that’s me) & Branaghan (an ASU psychology professor):

  • Improvement. The intention is to increase safety or production, a desire to do better.
  • Malevolent. The intention is to cause harm or reduce production, a desire to do damage.
  • Indolent. The intention is to increase operator ease, a desire for lethargy.
  • Hedonic. The intention is to increase operator excitement, a desire for sensation.

Understanding the varied reasons why is a start to working on how we can change the actual behavior. Even when the auditor isn’t watching. Because 1 in 5 is stupid bad.

The Gulfstream that started this wider investigation. Credit: NTSB

Oh, I do know calling pilots stupid is not nice. And the real reasons for these events are culture, training, management, incentives and other ‘deeper games’ of human nature. But I’m mad. So can’t stop myself from sharing a useful gif showing what the flight controls do, for my biz jet friends:

Control Surfaces, by Piotr Jaworski; PioM EN DE PL (Poznań/Poland) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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