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Article appeared in Flying Magazine January 2018 by John King

“There can be no compromise with safety.” “Safety is our number one priority.” You hear these kinds of quotes all the time from well-meaning people—very often people like the Secretary of Transportation or the Administrator of the FAA. The assertions are meant to be comforting, and they are—especially after a crash. They assure the public of the firm resolve by people in power to do better. The problem is they aren’t, and can’t be, true.

You can’t start an engine without compromising safety. If safety were our number one priority, we’d never move an airplane. Clearly going somewhere is in itself a demonstration that moving the airplane ranks ahead of safety. It would always be safer to stay put. These little intellectual dishonesties tend to end discussion and substitute for genuine analysis on the subject.

It can be discomforting to talk openly and honestly about safety. So we often make false assurances and otherwise deceive ourselves. For instance, we usually talk about safety as if it were an absolute. But absolute safety is an impossibility. In reality, safety is relative. Every activity has a greater or lesser degree of risk associated with it. Still, when someone departs on a trip, we usually say, “Have a safe trip” as a polite expression of goodwill. We say this when we know having a genuinely safe trip is literally impossible.

Not only do we find it uncomfortable to admit to ourselves that we can never achieve absolute safety, but we sometimes utterly lie to ourselves in order to not have to face reality about safety. General aviation pilots used to frequently tell themselves, and their passengers, that the drive to the airport was the most dangerous part of the trip. They wanted to believe that flying their piston-engine general aviation airplane was safer than driving. When it became known that the fatality rate per mile in a general aviation airplane was seven times that of driving, they had a very hard time accepting that reality. (On the other hand, for various reasons travel on the airlines is in fact seven times safer than travel on the roads.)

Sometimes our self-deception on the subject of safety just reflects wishful thinking. After a series of commuter airline crashes, the Administrator of the FAA attempted to mandate one level of safety for little airplanes as well as big airplanes. The problem is that it is not possible for a small airplane to be as safe as a Boeing 747. Safety equipment is adds weight. A little airplane can’t carry the weight of the safety provisions of a 747. Plus, safety is expensive. A little airplane can’t afford the cost of safety equipment the way a bigger plane can. But who wants to tell that to someone about to fly in a smaller airplane?

On the other hand, when noted Australian thought-leader and avid pilot (weight-shift trikes, single-engine airplanes, helicopters, and jets) Dick Smith was Chairman of the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, he steered people away from disingenuous talk about safety. He shocked people by talking about “affordable safety.” His point was that when safety becomes too expensive there can be a net reduction in safety. When excessively expensive safety measures are mandated, the cost of flying goes up. At some point people take less-safe surface transportation instead, and fatalities go up.

Another problem with the way we talk about safety has to do with how safety advice is normally given. It often provides very inadequate guidance. Safety advice usually takes a negative approach, stating what you cannot do rather than focusing on positive things you should do. In many cases it is limited to a hodgepodge of rules and sayings. The rules and sayings may all be good, but they are not adequate, because they fail to provide the big picture and structure.

Moreover, safety advice can even generate resistance. It can be preachy—taking on an off-putting air of smugness and superiority. It is not uncommon for advisors to suggest that someone does not exercise proper “judgment” or “aeronautical decision-making.” This comes across as a vague, demeaning criticism, but once again, with very little guidance.

So what is the alternative?

We need to change our vocabulary. In nearly every case, it is more insightful and helpful to talk about risk management. The concept of risk management suggests a proactive habit of identifying risks, assessing them, and exploring mitigation strategies for them. Those words “risk management” provide much-needed guidance about what people should do to get a safer outcome, in a way that the condescending criticisms, and emphasis on “safety,” do not.

One of the problems about the way we sometimes use the word “safety” is that if someone wants something done a certain way, they can often just simply trot out the word “safety,” or for that matter, “security,” and get carte blanche with little analysis. But the words “risk management” require a more thoughtful discussion—including in most cases identification and assessment of the risks and the appropriateness of the mitigation strategies.

When an aviation tragedy occurs, rather than trying to reassure and comfort people by promising things that are not possible, aviation leaders should say, “Our job is to understand the risk management failures that allowed this to happen and see that they do not occur again.”

Much to their credit, the FAA’s Flight Standards Service has embraced “risked-based decision-making” as one of its core values. The idea is that in this business of creating rules about how aviation should be run, they will now think in terms of the risks of an activity. Every safety measure has a trade-off in loss of fun and utility. When risked-based decision-making is a core value, that trade-off will be taken into consideration during rule-making.

The good news is that much of the aviation community is now focused on “risk management” rather than “safety.” First, flight schools are moving towards scenario-based training in order to help pilots learn risk management. The idea is to give a learning pilot the tools to habitually identify, assess, and mitigate risk. Then when that pilot is evaluated during the practical test, the FAA’s new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) require their risk management to be evaluated in every area of operation.

Martha and I have been promoting straight talk about safety for years. We finally figured we must be making progress when an attendee came up to us after a talk and said, “Have a relatively safe trip home.”


  1. Gary Ball

    High, Quiet & Safe (HQS)
    By HarmAlarm, a Texas private firm
    Precision Approach Landing System (PALS) provides the “Safe” component of Continuous Descent Final Approach for a 21st century Optimized Trajectory Navigation (OTN) solution to Performance Based Navigation, who many believe is the future of aviation.
    The FAA has been quick to realize an autopilot solution to an OTN based solely upon GPS would be a great solution, if the unlikely, but occasionally observed susceptibility of GPS/GNSS to interference (intentional and unintentional) can be either eliminated or circumvented. PALS’s proposes an independent, real time, A/C position verification at or before Decision Height can satisfy this requirement based upon a unique patent protected concept.
    PAL’s in its simplest terms is a look down, glass cockpit, which is an asymmetrical equivalent of the Enhanced Vision System. What makes PALS unique and revolutionary is PALS provides both an analytical visual solution and the qualitative pilot visual confirmation like EVS. Note, none of the current EVS based solutions are capable of offering a quantitative or automatic verification capability like PALS.
    The immediate market for PALS would be for general aviation to supplement current IFR approaches by providing the pilot with an independent A/C position verification at decision height. This verification authorizes the pilot at their discretion to continue the IFR approach until visual contact with the airport and runway at threshold to complete a VFR landing.
    The IFR navigation approach is based upon the GPS/GNSS certified A/C system and an Operational Approval to use PALS in an IMC environment down to Category III visibility conditions. PALS IR camera based solution has been optimized for certain FAA defined Airport Lighting System features. The artificial intelligence solution employs a unique features classification solution based upon spatial, spectral, temporal and geodetic (dimensional) properties unique to the FAA ALS. This concept is based upon a patent protected solution developed by HarmAlarm through independent IR&D activity.
    PAL’s provides a very accurate A/C position update (a few feet CEP), which supports an autopilot solutions to optimized the A/C landing trajectory, which increases the aircraft safety margin against potential hazards, such as wake turbulence, wing tip vortices, wind shear, icing, and runway intrusion from aircraft or ground based vehicles.
    PALS will be the catalyst for the ATC to consider a flight management technique called “stacking” as a way to safely and efficiently assign landing profiles to the designated airport runway for multiple aircraft.
    “Stacking” is a technique where the initial or lead aircraft is assigned a continuous glide slope approach of minus three degrees. The next A/C to join the “stack” for the designated runway is assigned a glide slope of minus 4 degrees (one degree greater). The third A/C in the stack will be assigned minus five degrees. Similarly, the four and last A/C will be assigned minus 6 degrees. The next A/C assigned to land at the runway will start the stacking procedure over at minus 3 degrees. This stacking is an efficient methodology to get the aircraft down to the runway faster and safer than the current protocol (staircase) of descent and hold altitude. Each aircraft sequentially arrives at their decision height. At Decision Height the A/C will initiate a gentle nose up flare maneuver to a minus 2 degree glide slope for the final landing of wheels down.
    Studies and tests have shown the “continuous descent” approach is far less taxing and demanding on the pilot, and is deemed far safer procedure giving the pilot an improved safety margin for unexpected events weather or aircraft related. The reduction in demands placed on the pilot are for both peak loading during landing and long haul fatigue reduction by greater dependence on the autopilot.
    The PALS based solution to the CDFA has a significant “green benefit”.
    Experts have estimated that more than 1,000 pounds of fuel per plane per landing could be saved by a CDFA capability. These benefits are both energy conservation and reduced pollution. Of course, the PALS based CDFA will also eliminate airport landing noise and the present inefficient and taxing need to close runways from midnight to 6 am. A practiced that is prevalent at many of our major airports such as LAX, IAD, SFO, LGA, ORD, and many others.
    The Development plan for PALS will consists of an initial “proof of Concept” Demonstration and the acquiring of a performance data base needed for the product design optimization necessary for each FAA certified sales market.
    The question often asked is, “PALS an existing product seeking FAA certification or merely a promising concept several years away from maturity?”
    The answer is both, and let me elaborate on this ambiguous answer. In 1990 as part of the EVS Development program a “PALS” unit was fabricated and flight tested extensively. Therefore, the simplest answer is the system demonstrated then was production ready system and suitable for certification. The drawback to this approach is that 1990’s era PALS utilized current (1990) state of the art IR technology and methods. If we used it today this would result in a system with build in obsolescence by not taking advantage of the great technical strides in the science of Infrared technology that has occurred in the last 30 years. Higher performance, lower cost, higher reliability, and longer life are all available as upgrades if we take the approach of modernize our 1990-PALS, to a 2020-PALS configuration. On a relative maturity scale the technology available today is far more mature with many more competitive alternatives. Competition and market size being the factors that most influence market costs. The risk is viewed as low and acceptable .
    PALS will have an immediate benefit to aviation by bringing an affordable robust IFR solution to general aviation. The PALS in this application for general aviation will consist of a conformal belly mounted addition of less than 10.0 pounds with an STC tailored for each applicable A/C type. A standard PALS allows economy of scale with a simple retrofit.
    For the new A/C market a Type Certified using an external belly mounted IR window will accommodate the PALS IR camera requirement. Being perpendicular and conformal to the air stream will greatly simplify the FAA safety certification compared to the forward looking window required by EVS.
    For both cases retrofit and original equipment certification the unique features of PALS will provide the sought after capability to enhance general aviation in the 21st century.

  2. Gregory Dombrowski

    Fantastic. I’ve felt this way for a long time. Safety has turned into a political correctness card that gets used for agendas. This in turn makes safety sermons ring hollow. Of course no one s against safety, but a certain amount of risk becomes acceptable in everything we do. .

    Mike Rowe has a great video on this very topic:.

    Best regards!

  3. Harry Day Case III

    Great article John. Thank you for sharing this highly important information. I am a member of the Civil Air Patrol, an organization that lives by the Risk Management model. We practice it, not just in our flying but in all CAP activities.

    Happy flying!

  4. Duane Penzien

    Its about time someone talked this kind of common sense. You cannot live without some element of risk – it’s deciding what risks are acceptable that is important. Too often, we are led to believe that “Perfect Safety” exists and is an achievable goal – and it is not just in aviation that we hear this. The problem is, “Perfect Safety” can never be achieved while you are a living, breathing human being. Thanks for the timely reminder!

  5. Jay

    I use to say that safety was such a priority that it is making us dangerous. Every time an accident occurred, people in congress who know little to nothing about aviation had 5 knee jerk reaction solutions and 2 more pieces of equipment to add on to your airplane supposedly to keep it from happening again.
    So instead of replacing bald tires and loose landing gear equipment with available funds on small airplanes, commuter air carriers were installing voice recorders so they could hear the gory details of the next crash. And the pilots, instead of spending more time looking at weather, considering fuel and alternates and doing preflight duties were filling out SMS paperwork to leave behind so the authorities could check it over and find out why they crashed later.

    I once tried to explain to my passengers how to use a life raft before crossing the Gulf of Mexico and the bosses girlfriend said, “Oh no honey, don’t talk about that because it will scare the passengers.”

    In truth, I think we have become so sissified, detached from reality and scared we might die, that we would rather just deceive ourselves into believing that we are safe and hire pilots who tell us we are safe rather than listening to those pilots who tell us graphically and understandably when we are in real danger.

    If the original pilots who pioneered aviation were as cowardly as our modern generation, we would still be riding bicycles or horses and buggies.


    I’m SO GLAD that this line of thinking has finally come to the forefront–and articulated by aviation leaders John and Martha King!

    Safety doesn’t result from rule making, and it doesn’t result from preaching. It comes about with knowledge and peer pressure. The threat of FAA enforcement doesn’t work, but when your pilot peers take you aside and mention “I saw you do something stupid”–peer pressure usually causes action. Consider smoking by youth–years of advertising and “Say no to cigarettes” didn’t work–it was only when people became disapproving of the act that smoking fell precipitously .

    In training, instead of “thou shalt not”–a frank discussion of “this will kill you if you mess this up–here’s how to get it right” is far more effective than simply meeting the minimum flight standards. With good, relatively low-cost simulators, these sometimes dangerous scenarios can be played out to the end. In accordance with that, I’d like to see good dual-instruction simulator time given more weight toward the minimum pilot requirements–instead of requiring 250 hours of flight time for a Commercial rating, allow more simulator time given by a trained instructor in a realistic simulator. After all–when the pilot DOES get to the airline–they will become VERY familiar with–THE SIMULATOR!

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