Safety First, What can we learn from the Military?

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Recently, I’ve spent some time shadowing and observing our military demonstration pilots and teams. I’ve learned a lot, including the fact that civilian and military air show performers enjoy a unique symbiotic relationship in which they learn from one another in a way that makes both groups better air show pilots. But I’d like to focus here on one thing that the military does particularly well: pre-performance preparation. 

In early March at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base each year, the single-ship U.S. Air Force demonstration teams participate in the Heritage Training Conference during which they practice their flight profiles and participate in dissimilar aircraft formation training.  During the 2010 training session, the entire ACC demonstration fleet consisting of F-4 Phantoms, A-10 Warthogs, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Vipers and F-22 Raptors was in attendance along with Heritage aircraft including multiple Mustangs, an A1E Skyraider, a P-40 Warhawk and an F-86 Sabre.  

Prior to each flight, the demo pilots would brief the entire flight profile with their support team and safety observer. Every maneuver, reposition and pass was covered as well as any conceivable deviation from the briefed profile. From the time the team left the brief to the time the engines were shut down, every pilot participating in the sortie knew exactly what was going to happen. 

At the Vidalia Onion Festival, I had the opportunity to observe the United States Navy Blue Angels. Like the Air Force, the briefing was comprehensive and extremely detailed. The Boss talked through the entire show, from entering the plane to taxing back into the chalks. When Boss was finished with his briefing, each member of the team went over his own concerns and goals for the show with the entire group. The team then separated for private, maneuver-specific briefings for Fat Albert, the solos and the diamond. These mini-briefings allowed each segment of the team to “seat fly” or talk through any maneuvers that needed additional discussion. After these briefings, the team went to their planes and flew their show precisely how they had stated they would. 

Most ICAS members are not members of military flight demonstration teams and do not fly state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar aircraft maintained by dedicated teams of highly-trained technicians. So applying the lessons that we can learn from our military colleagues takes a bit of translation and interpretation. But it is a mistake to use those differences as an excuse to ignore the improvements we can make to our own operations by paying close attention to what military air show pilots do and how they do it. At the end of the day, civilian air show performers have a lot in common with their Navy, Air Force and Marine brethren. 

The simplest suggestion is also very likely the most challenging. Mimic their preparation. If you are a single ship act, follow the lead set by the single ship demonstration teams. If you are a formation team, copy the Blues, Thunderbirds and Snowbirds. Brief your plan, and fly your brief. Use briefings as an opportunity to anticipate and plan for possible problems. Use de-briefs as a chance to critique everything about your own performance and that of your team with an eye toward making improvements and doing even better next time. 

At the 2009 ICAS Convention in Las Vegas, Dr. Stephen Jarvis from Cranfield University in Great Britain discussed with the performers several issues regarding human factors and air shows (see “Fuel for Thought” on page xx). One of the more memorable concepts discussed by Dr. Jarvis pertained to a survey conducted with air show pilots. One of the survey questions was, “What show was your worst show of the year?” A completely separate question was, “At what show did you come closest to dying?” The data collected overwhelmingly indicated that the worst show for most performers was not the show that they felt to be the most dangerous. The reasoning behind this disparity lies in the mindset of performers. Pilots who, on the ground, would never even consider the possibility that they might take certain kinds of chances are surprisingly likely to take those kinds of chances when they’re actually in the air. And that is one of the most powerful benefits of regular, detailed briefings. Pilots are all less likely to succumb to “airshowitis” if it means straying from the performance that they had briefed shortly before getting into the plane and prior to every other performance for months and years before that. And that is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from our friends in the military. 

The most effective antidote to pressure of show days is precise, repetitive preparation:  knowing precisely what you plan to do and exactly when you plan to do it. Having practiced and briefed the performance to the point that there can be no surprise deviations will allow your brain to recognize when an action is departing the norm. This will be your warning, not fear or a sense of danger, that you are about to do something dangerous. This method cannot be learned without extensive preparation and a down-deep-inside-of-you commitment to always brief what you will fly and fly only what has been briefed.                                                                               

What can we learn from our military?  In the air show industry, the answer is quite simple: “Preparation is everything.”

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Dan Hollowell
Dan Hollowell, ICAS Vice President, Safety and Operations. | Dan Hollowell joined the ICAS staff as the organization's new director of operations in July of 2008. A 2008 graduate of Purdue University with a B.S. in Aviation Management, Hollowell is a multi-engine commercial pilot with an instrument rating. He has also worked as an intern with the National Transportation Safety Board.