Stopping the Pendulum

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Here at the ICAS headquarters, we’ve frequently used the analogy of a pendulum’s motion to describe safety in the air show industry.  A pendulum will swing along its axis to a maximum height then return in the opposite direction to an equal height.  Just as the pendulum swings, so, historically, does the safety awareness of the air show community swing back and forth.  On one end, a high accident rate will cause increased awareness and momentum for a change in the safer direction.  With increased awareness comes a decreased accident rate.  Then, with a lower accident rate, inattention and complacency set in, returning the momentum of the pendulum in the less safe direction. 

In 2007, after a particularly high-profile series of fatal air show accidents, the air show community spoke loudly, clearly and with virtually one voice, asking that more attention and efforts be devoted to safety issues.  This, one could say, was the peak of the pendulum swing.  ICAS leadership became more aware of the need to drive the industry toward becoming safer.  The “Safety First” campaign was launched, new safety committees were formed, the first drafts of a safety management system were put to paper, and a staff level-position was created to address safety issues on a full time basis.  The understanding and support of the air show industry was so overwhelmingly powerful and positive that the pendulum was effectively kicked in the opposite direction.  In part because of the enthusiasm for this safety initiative, the North American air show community had just a single fatal accident in 2008 and no fatal accidents in 2009 or 2010.

The challenge that our industry now faces is much greater.  As the memories of losing our friends and colleagues fade, it can be easy to revert to our outdated, less safe mindset and habits.  Now that we have hit our peak in one direction, the natural motion of the pendulum is to move back into the opposite direction.  The bad news is that, figuratively, we will be fighting the laws of physics and gravity. The good news is that, as an industry of aviators and aviation enthusiasts, we are already quite expert at challenging these laws of nature and putting them to use for our own benefit.

As we press into the heart of the 2011 air show season, my challenge to the air show industry is this:  do not relent.  We are not destined to relive our past. We can change this historic pattern and “lock in” the lessons we’ve learned during the last 30 years.  

The tools of our ongoing effort to change the culture of air show safety are still with us. And they will grow and improve with time. Our safety committees are putting out practical, common sense information on improving safety.  The ICAS Operations Bulletin (Ops Bull) will continue to arrive in your e-mail inbox once or twice a year. We will continue to investigate and report on useful lessons learned from air show-related accidents, incidents and near misses. Here at ICAS headquarters, we will do everything in our power to keep the safety awareness torch burning.

But the real challenge is not about what ICAS or your air show colleagues do. It’s about what you do. As the horror of past accidents recedes from our minds, it will become easier to stop paying attention to safety bulletins or safety-related best practices.  It might become more comfortable to ignore early warning signs of safety problems with a friend or colleague. For some, it will seem unnecessary to worry about hydration or to give a performing pilot the time he needs prior to his performance to focus on his aerobatic flight. Those old habits will make an effort to re-establish themselves.

But this is not 2007 and our industry has changed, permanently.

Not so long ago, we considered ourselves lucky to get through an air show season with “just” three fatal accidents.  Just a few years ago, it was considered rude and intrusive for one pilot to pass along constructive, safety-related observations to a fellow performer. As recently as 2006, the presumption in our industry was that a certain number of fatal air show accidents were inevitable and that there was little the industry could do to change that.

But none of those things are true anymore. We are smarter, faster and better equipped to address any issues that can become hazards. We are doing a better job at putting the unfortunate experiences of others to work in avoiding similar problems elsewhere in the business.  Our perception of what is and what is not safe has fundamentally changed.  “Just” three fatal accidents is no longer OK and we are in the process of locking that historic pendulum in place. We have introduced change that we cannot – and do not want to! – un-do.

Of course, there will be setbacks. But during my time with ICAS, the industry has collectively committed itself to introducing change and then institutionalizing that change as the new status quo. Preventative safety measures, Ops Bull, the ICAS Confidential Reporting System and many other tools and information resources are available to the industry to keep us from slipping back into old, bad habits. As an organization, ICAS can do little to stop an accident from happening. But individual ICAS members have been empowered with many resources to insure our industry remains focused on keeping our friends safe.  Constant vigilance and attention to detail are more than just talking points.  They are now the expectation. 

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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.