"Making Safety a Reflex"
Peggy Gilligan, Orlando, FL
April 16, 2013

World Aviation Training Symposium

Thank you, Chris [Lehman], and thank you all for coming.  

We live in a day and age where it’s possible to get about anything instantly.  There is a generation coming up that’s really unaccustomed to the concept of waiting.  Their yardstick is whether or not a page loads in 3 seconds or less.  There was a time not that long ago when you listened to the radio … in my case, WNEW in New York … hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, your favorite song would be on next. 

That’s the stuff of ancient history.  Now, there’s no waiting.  Your favorite song doesn’t have to be next.  With an Pod or Sirius XM or your cell phone, your favorite song is always right there, right now.  And you can hear it 10 times in a row.  You can stream your favorite movie right to this very room, right here, right now.  So those of you with iPads … I know what you’re doing….

Technology has brought us … perhaps pushed and maybe even pulled us into what we all used to call the Future.  In our cars, we’re starting to think about our blind spot less and less, because the driver side mirror is checking it for us.  When you’re backing up, a camera pops up in the rearview mirror, and an audible beep grows louder and louder as that car in the spot behind you grows closer and closer.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that technology has made our lives easier and better … but easier and better shouldn’t suggest perfect.  It’s easy to develop a mindset … and this is something we all do … to think that technology is or could be the answer to all our problems.  But if you read through enough NTSB accident reports, you see pretty quickly that technology is not the answer to every problem.  But to be fair, I’m not suggesting that technology is the root cause of all evil, either.

It’s just this shift to relying solely on technology – and the risk that comes with it – is something that falls in everyone’s lap … each and every one of us … all of us.  In way too many parts of our lives, we’ve started to rely on technology to tell us what to do and when to do it.  It’s an all-too-comfortable slide to the place where we start thinking that technology will somehow identify every problem before it happens.  And of course, the danger in all of this is that we begin to think that we must rely on technology – and only on technology to tell us what to do to fix the problem.  And then we expect life to continue uninterrupted.

I think we can all agree it’s not that simple.  Not only is that not how it works, we know that it can’t work that way.  By thinking that technology has all the answers – or that technology is the only way to get the answer – we may have gotten further away from the basics than we realize.  If we’re not careful, we will disengage the most important piece of technology in our toolkit – our brains – and that’s not good.  There is no place in safety for a set-it-and-forget-it mentality. 

We see examples of the need for the human in the loop in too many accidents and incidents.  Failure to execute the proper techniques for stall recovery.  Failure to effectuate crew resource management.  A disregard for airmanship.  A lack of professionalism.  All of these are what happen when you take your eye off the ball.  Accident causes are like dominos.  When one or two or three of them fall, it’s not surprising to find that catastrophe is looking over your shoulder. 

Other groups have faced this issue, and they handle it by going back to the basics.  John Wooden won 10 NCAA championships at UCLA in 12 years.  But every year, he started his practices by teaching players the proper way to tie their sneakers.  Vince Lombardi would hold up a football and yell, “This is why we’re here.”  Before they hit a single ball, pro golfers will walk the entire course.  The military calls it “basic training.”  The NFL calls it “training camp.” 

From where I stand – and in this room, I am very clearly not standing alone –what we all need to focus on is the very thing that brings us all to Orlando:  training.  Proper, efficient and professional training is what creates reflex.  Somebody once asked Michael Jordan about how he felt after hitting a long jumper at the buzzer.  He said, “I take that shot 30 times a day in practice.”

It needs to be the same way for every one of us in this business.  Given the safety record that the men and women in this room have put together, it happens well over 99 percent of the time.  That’s because of training and professionalism.  But as great a record as that is, we can’t be satisfied.  The small increment that’s between where we are now and a perfect score needs a double dose of training and an even mix of professionalism. 

This conference puts a very bright spotlight on training, and that is as it should be.  I was very pleased to see the agenda – with separate segments for maintenance, cabin crew and pilots.  Sessions about e-learning and event tracking, pilot supply and demand, how to create a training culture.  These are bread and butter issues that we’ve got to talk about, regardless of where we are in this industry. 

You know when we were watching the “miracle on the Hudson,” Captain Sullenberger got a ton of credit for pulling off a masterful exhibition of what it means to be a pilot in command.  But when I looked at the passengers standing on those wings, I could see a few other heroes among them – the cabin crew.  Flight attendants are safety professionals.  When something goes wrong, we rely on them to follow through on their training.  The Captain took that plane safely into the water, but the crew made the difference once it touched down.  Accidents are more survivable because of the training we’ve put in to make them that way.  And flight attendants are key part of that equation.  That’s why sessions like training for challenges in the cabin or training solutions from lessons learned are so important.

And our maintenance colleagues are key contributors to our safety record.  But here’s an area where change is a constant, so sessions like MAPS to APS – or industry composite training requirements open our minds to what the future might be. 

So with all that said … it’s not only about the pilot community … it’s all of us.  At each stage of the game, you have a personal responsibility to make sure you’re trained and ready.  The mechanics, the flight attendants, the dispatchers, and the pilots – anyone who touches the equipment before, during or after takeoff and touchdown. 

You’re all here because you believe it too.  The training professionals in the room will tell us that when you train, when you prepare again and again and again, you create muscle memory and you create those neural pathways we call habits.  Training creates habits … habits become reflex, and this kind of reflex is at the very root of the safety record we’ve got today.  Over the years, we developed and followed things like check lists.  Because we know that’s an effective way to make sure we dot every eye and cross every tee.  This is a business that doesn’t just expect that, it demands it. 

But how does each generation learn our expectation and demands?  In a just culture, safety has to be a shared responsibility.  Mistakes aren’t covered up:  they’re identified, they addressed and they are fixed.  You’ve heard a lot about mentoring over the last couple of years, and I’m a big believer in that approach.  Let’s face it:  the more years you have on the job, the more you’ve experienced.  Been there, done that.  That phrase isn’t to be taken lightly.  The smart young ones among us really need to push us to share our secrets.  Don’t just learn the ropes, master the ropes.  Talk to the men and women with years of experience under their belts, and learn that the tricks of the trade aren’t really tricks at all.  There’s a right way and a wrong way, and to make it in this business, you’ve got to know the difference between the two. 

So my challenge goes to two groups of people.  To the new kids on the block, learn what you can while you can.  When you see a craftsman, watch, listen and learn.  Ask questions.  Find out the how … and more importantly, the why.  You are working with living, breathing, walking, talking examples of how to get it done.  And they enjoy nothing more than talking about their craft.  There’s nothing quite like the opportunity to learn from the person who actually wrote the book you’re trying to read. 

To those who’ve been around the block a time or two, I’m making a personal plea to ask you to become a mentor.  If you’re not mentoring, you’re cheating the next generation of the nuggets that make this system the safest in the history of the world.  We are safe because you are safe.  I’m just asking you to teach the next generation what you did to lay that foundation of safety.

I think this all comes down to something called aviation citizenship.  Having the right attitude is as important as having the right training.  Aviation citizenship involves recognizing your limitations, knowing when you’re fatigued.  You have to have an awareness of self … especially in the human-machine environment.  As a business, we’ve got to know our limits and stay there.  What we can’t have is people who just aren’t paying attention.  People too eager to check the box rather than check to see what’s inside a box.  Complacency kills, it’s that simple.  As professionals, we can’t let it happen. 

We know, for example, that training has a shelf life.  If too much time passes between intervals, you’re off your game.  Mistakes are sure to follow the complacency that’s bound to set in.  And there’s also the potential to fall into thinking that advances in technology will shore up the gap in training.  That kind of thinking isn’t just wrong, it’s potentially fatal. 

While automation makes us safer, and it’s a tremendous tool for safety, it is not now nor do I ever think it will be a substitute for technical training.  And technical training is no substitute for the situational awareness you need to carry with you on the job.  Not just in the cockpit, but in the hangar, in the cabin, in the galley, under the cowling.  And we can help each other … not in a punitive way … but in the spirit of making sure that everybody is keeping an eye out for everyone else.  A just culture allows this, and it helps us to better understand the risks we face. 

In closing, let me underscore a point that you will hear many times throughout these sessions:  Safety needs to be the bottom line at every turn, in everything we do.  As professionals, we know that there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes … especially when it comes to safety.  It’s only through the constant and continuous pursuit of professionalism – the very thing we need to make safety a reflex – that gets us there and keeps us there.  Enjoy WATS 2013.  Thank you.