Monday, 20 June 2016


I have spent a lot of time unpicking aircraft accidents in the course of my consultancy for IATA’s risk reduction programmes and as an expert witness in liability cases. Whilst that does risk becoming desensitised to the frequently unnecessary tragedy of these events, it has given me a keen insight into what causes pilots to crash their aeroplanes. Perhaps more importantly I believe it has helped me to distill some key factors which could have stopped them happening – three in fact, which I will explain below.

Prevention – generally we would all accept that prevention is by far the best means to avoid accidents, in the air or on the ground. We have countless opportunities to prevent accidents every day and in flight operations this activity is formalised into procedures and checklists. If we adhere to these tried and tested action sequences, the overwhelming majority of flights will be uneventful. Therefore, straightforward procedural compliance can deliver accident prevention virtually every time.

Recognition – in today’s highly reliable aircraft, operating in a well-controlled environment, facilitated by real-time weather, traffic and airspace information it is rare for anything out of the ordinary to penetrate the serene world of the commercial pilot. But if something unusual does happen it is vital that the pilots quickly recognise the deviation, picking it out from the backdrop of countless hours of ‘normal’. This ability to recognise the abnormal must be founded upon a comprehensive knowledge of what normal should look like; what is the acceptable range of values for every critical parameter.

Recovery – having recognised that things are not going to plan, pilots must be able to recover to normal, or at least to a new ‘normal’ within the constraints of whatever has occurred. Then and pretty much only then, do the pilots require real skill.

So that’s it; prevention through rigorous compliance, recognition based on comprehensive knowledge and finally recovery requiring piloting skill. Most of the current generation of airline pilots will probably never need more than the first of these (and that’s worth bearing in mind when hiring and training pilots) but how do we deliver and maintain the knowledge and how do we hone the skills when they may never be needed in the course of an entire career?

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