What is the goal of flight test safety?

This article first appeared in the May 2015 Flight Test News.

We were sitting around the office, talking about our mental image of a perfect training environment, sorting through our experiences and perceptions of the world, trying to find an example.  In fact, we mentally opened up the box, encouraged ourselves to think outside of it, and even considered non-aerospace organizations: How about the US Navy SEALs? Does Starbucks have an effective corporate training and development program that we can emulate? As we talked about training, the subject of flight safety and test safety came up too.  How do you teach safety? And do the goals of a training program align with the goals of a safety program? A couple of ideas percolated to the top of our minds, mission statements, things we’d heard or read, mantras that sounded like, “be the best at…” and “The premier flight test organization…”and even one closer to home, “promoting flight safety…” and so on. There’s a problem with this kind of broad and general thinking though: It doesn’t give us any idea what we should be doing (and shouldn’t be doing) to accomplish the goal of safety.  For example, here is a “blurry vision” that confuses rather than directs those that hear it, an example from the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.

“Consider a software start-up whose goal is to build ‘the next great search engine.’ Within the start-up are two programmers with nearly identical knowledge, working in neighboring cubes. To one ‘the next great search engine’ means completeness, ensuring that the search engine returns everything on the web that might be relevant, no matter how obscure. To the other it means speed, ensuring pretty good results very fast. Their efforts will not be fully aligned until the goal is made concrete.”

Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Chip Heath

The authors spend an entire chapter explaining what they mean by concrete and why its important, but what follows is one of the more helpful examples.

“When Boeing prepared to launch the design of the 727 passenger plane in the 1960s, its managers set a goal that was deliberately concrete: The 727 must seat 131 passengers, fly nonstop from Miami to New York City, and land on Runway 4-22 at LaGuardia. (The 4-22 runway was chosen for its length–less than a mile, which was much too short for any of the existing passenger jets.) With a goal this concrete, Boeing effectively coordinated the actions of thousands of experts in various aspects of engineering or manufacturing. Imagine how much harder it would have been to build a 727 whose goal was to be ‘the best passenger plane in the world.’”

Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath

Do these examples help us formulate a useful, meaningful goal for our flight safety efforts and avoid a vague one? Exploring that question is the purpose of the May 2015 edition of the Flight Test News, and we hope it will open up a dialogue about what’s right, what’s wrong, and what we might accomplish better.  I think that in some cases, it’s going to be painful, like ripping off a band aid. It might even force some of us to revisit dark places in our memory and experience.  But I think it’s worth it. Consider these words from USMC General Mattis:

“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience, i.e., the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final…”

Mattis comments were intended for the study of military history, but we can directly apply his lesson to the exercise of reading and discussing the accidents of our past.  Taking the time to figure out “where we are going” and “why” is important, because the work we do is too dangerous to accept “promoting flight safety” as our goal.

This article first appeared in the May 2015 Flight Test News.

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