We actually do quite well at training people to make good decisions regarding their safety. People in industries ranging from commercial aviation to the nuclear industry have made impressive improvements in their safety record over the years. Not so for general aviation.
Our fatal accident rate hasn’t improved in any significant way for the past 25 years, despite the fact that GA pilots have been taught aviation decision-making skills during this time. Were this not the case, we wouldn’t have the NTSB chairman saying, “We know the general aviation community can do much better.” So why has the GA fatal accident rate been nearly flat for a quarter of a century?
Ask yourself what the similarity is between commercial aviation, the Coast Guard, and the nuclear industry. The envelope, please.
In my opinion, organizations such as these benefit from strong group cohesion, something that’s missing from general aviation. Group cohesion is a process by which individual members of a group develop links that bond them together. It’s this collective sense of unity that helps sustain the group and inspires its members to behave in ways that are rewarded and reinforced by group membership. If the group supports a culture of safety, then individuals within the group generally strive to behave safely.
General aviation experiences very little group cohesion because it doesn’t function like a group. At least not in the sense that the association between its members is effective at inspiring the safety-oriented behaviors found in the airline or nuclear industries. We have individuals with similar interests, but group cohesion is missing. After all, we don’t have to work and/or socialize with one another. Our personal safety isn’t dependent on each other, as it is in other industries.
In my opinion, group cohesion acts to reduce accidents because it works as a check and balance on our human nature.
If you’re a student of history, then you know that human nature doesn’t bring out the best in man. Among other things, it causes him to behave impulsively, feel invulnerable, act macho, abuse his power, and resist responsible authority (among other things). Do these look familiar? They should. They’re well-established hazardous thought patterns that everyone acts upon at one time or another unless they are overridden by a good set of personal safety values. These are the same safety values that are often inspired, inculcated, and reinforced by strong group cohesion. These safety values must be learned and reinforced. They’re not part of our human nature.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that in the absence of group cohesion, general aviation pilots aren’t capable of acting responsibly. Nearly all GA pilots do, despite the NTSB’s and FAA’s lamentations. They operate in accordance with safety values that counter their human nature. While there are many ways one might acquire good safety values, it’s not likely they resulted from strong GA group cohesion.
Unlike other industries whose individual members are influenced positively by strong group cohesion, GA can’t control its outliers. These can be individuals with reckless personalities or ordinary people who surrender to the temptation of behaving badly in the air. They might press on in poor weather to avoid an out-of-town stay, or fail to refuel because it’s inconvenient. These are just a few of the outliers whose poor decisions sustain our relatively constant fatal accident rate.
The sobering part of this story is that even individuals with good safety values might become outliers at one time or another. We’re all human and it’s easy to let our human nature compel us to behave inappropriately at times. Big surprise, everyone sins.
In these situations, it’s the influence of the group that might compel the outlier to think a second time about his choice of behavior. This is precisely what happens when a nuclear plant manager critiques a fellow atom specialist, communicating the idea that he hasn’t been managing his atoms properly and putting a different spin on things. This is how groups can influence us to behave better.
So when aviation’s leaders say that the general aviation community can do much better at safety, I’m thinking this is easier said than done without the benefit of group cohesion. It’s seems clear that you can lead an outlier to the fluid nature of safety theory but you can’t make him think.
In my opinion, unless we find a way to develop the group cohesion found in other industries that have enviable safety records, GA’s present fatal accident record isn’t likely to change all that much—at least not without overly restricting every pilot’s behavior.
Rod Machado will present a seminar on aviation humor at AOPA Aviation Summit October 10 through 12, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas.