Every October, in what has become an annual tradition, Bombardier Aerospace conducts its Safety Standdown. The standdown is a four-day series of safety seminars, workshops, and hands-on training that's unique in general aviation. Bombardier offers this quality education to pilots, safety specialists, industry officials, and operators of all types of aircraft, free of charge. (However, attendees must cover their travel, lodging, and meal expenses.) It's an event that debuted modestly in 1997, with a mere 12 attendees. The most recent Standdown — held from October 24 through 27, 2005, at Wichita's Hyatt Regency Hotel — drew 435 participants. The event's theme was a "War On Error."
Robert Agostino, director of flight operations for Bombardier Business Aircraft and master of ceremonies for the event, set the tone during his opening remarks. "What we're seeing is that 78 percent of aircraft accidents are caused by operational mistakes and human error," Agostino said. "And we came to the conclusion during our accident studies that these accidents are really all the same...and our concern is that the corporate aviation industry appears satisfied with traditional, skill-based training that focuses on equipment and design, not the human element. That's why Bombardier is focusing on the human component of safety training, and that's why we have the standdown. The human half of the man-machine equation hasn't kept pace with the technology in either formal training programs or in regulatory oversight."
Agostino described the layers of safety that make up safe flying, explaining how pilot discipline remains the key element. At the outermost levels, the government tries to protect us with its regulations. Next come manufacturers, who give guidance via the aircraft flight manual. Then come the standard operating procedures and safety management cultures provided by corporations and their flight departments. At the center is the pilot. And if his discipline isn't up to par — if he tolerates deviation from standard procedures, for example — then there's the danger of sliding into a culture of noncompliance, and of tolerating more errors, the kind of errors that lead to accidents.
The list of speakers at the Standdown sounds like a who's who of aviation safety experts. Dr. Tony Kern, author and safety consultant, talked about methods of error reduction, and crew pairings. Col. Steven Nagel, NASA research pilot, dwelled on the topic of an organization's contributions to an accident chain, using airline accident case studies, and the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents as examples. Apollo 17 astronaut and Navy Capt. Gene Cernan discussed professionalism. Dr. Mark Rosekind delved into fatigue countermeasures. Navy Capt. Donna Murdoch's subject was hypoxia. Dr. Lawrence Lay's topic was health issues. Dr. Jerome Berlin talked about pilot personalities, and conducted a psychology workshop. Aviation writer Fred George's emphasis was on aircraft performance, particularly in the "window of risk" where landings and takeoffs occur. Sean Roberts of the National Test Pilot School went into advanced aerodynamics. Dr. Douglas Mykol, president of FACTS/AirCare International, discussed medical and emergency training.
FACTS also provided four sessions of hands-on training. This included training in in-flight smoke and fire procedures; hypoxia awareness; cardiopulmonary resuscitation and defibrillator use; and land and water evacuations. Many participants elected to use FACTS' cabin simulators for the in-flight smoke and fire training. Others jumped in the hotel pool for practice in the company's ditching simulator, or went outside to practice using fire extinguishers.
The international operations recurrent workshop, conducted by Air Training International Ltd., covered a wide range of topics relating to oceanic and long-range navigation. Special emphasis was on standard procedures in reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSMs) airspace. Useful rules of thumb for completing navigation logs and calculating tracks and distances, plus insider tips for smooth transitions through international airspace and airports, also were covered. Copies of Air Training's own very complete international checklist, which includes items ranging from customs documentation to overflight permits to hotel arrangements, were issued to seminar attendees.
But those four full days aren't all work. An evening reception featured a lively, down-to-earth panel discussion with legendary airshow pilot Robert A. "Bob" Hoover and astronauts Gene Cernan, Joe Engle, and Steven Nagel.
The standdown is a fine example of corporate social responsibility. If you had to pay for the level of training you received, the cost would be in thousands; the international operations seminar alone runs $700. And the training is as invaluable as it is well respected. Graduates of the program have been able to earn continuing education credits at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since 2003, and at the National Test Pilot School since 2004. This year, Bombardier announced another free safety enhancement as of February 1, 2006, this time for buyers of new Bombardier business jets. This "Leading Edge" program includes unusual attitude and upset training for two pilots at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, California; an "AvAlert" fatigue countermeasures course; and a Safety Management System Resource Kit, designed to let organizations implement a broad program of safety initiatives.
The only drawback to the Safety Standdown is its restriction on the number of participants. Bombardier had to turn away 150 applicants this time. Perhaps the program will expand in the future, although some might argue this would compromise the efficacy of what has become a very exclusive learning experience.
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Links to additional information about accident prevention may be found on AOPA Online.