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Flight School Spotlight: Rainier Flight Service

SMS for flight schools

By Jim Pitman

Gordon Alvord is a co-owner of Rainier Flight Service, a successful flight school and FBO at Renton Municipal Airport (RNT) in Renton, Washington. Alvord and his team have implemented a simple, yet effective safety management system (SMS) to help identify and mitigate risks in the company’s operation. The results of this system include improved safety, increased operational efficiency, and enhanced customer service.


The FAA defines SMS as, “the formal, top-down, organization-wide approach to managing safety risk and assuring the effectiveness of safety risk controls. It includes systematic procedures, practices, and policies for the management of safety risk.” In simple terms, SMS is a proactive approach to managing risk and improving safety.

“We wanted to take our experience from the airlines and implement the elements of SMS that make sense for general aviation and flight training,” Alvord said. “It’s been my observation that most flight schools have a reactive approach to risk management. There may be specific safety-related policies in place, but then everyone just sits back and hopes those policies work to prevent accidents and incidents.

“SMS is a more proactive approach that is all about identifying and mitigating risks before they become threats. When done properly, everyone involved understands the process and is actively involved in providing solutions to mitigate risks on an ongoing basis,” Alvord said.

It’s important to identify your motivation for wanting an SMS. “SMS programs are required for Part 121 operations but are yet to be widely adopted in general aviation,” Alvord said. “A few large flight schools have developed SMS programs, but there is no legal requirement for the typical flight school to develop or maintain any type of organized safety system. However, doing so is important and worth the effort. A good SMS program helps to significantly reduce flight school accidents and incidents. Schools also benefit from improved reliability and customer service through minimizing ‘pain points’ for clients,” Alvord said.

The how-to portion can be summarized in three simple steps:

  1. Select a manger to lead your SMS.
  2. Develop appropriate policies and procedures.
  3. Foster an effective safety culture.


The first step is to identify a current employee to be your safety manager (or other appropriate title). This person may be an existing chief or assistant chief flight instructor. Or you may select a line flight instructor or front desk manager who is passionate about safety. The key is to choose someone who is respected by the other staff members and customers. For most small flight schools, this new role will not take a lot of additional time or effort, but you need to select someone who is dedicated to the cause.

The next step is to organize your company policies and best practices that are related to safety. This will become your SMS manual. You are welcome to use the Rainier Flight Service SMS Manual as a template. Email [email protected] to request a copy.

As part of your program, you will need to create an in-house reporting system to collect and track safety reports. This can be done several different ways. “We had our website guy create an online form to accept submissions. It’s essentially a copy of the NASA form. A school could just as easily have a stack of paper forms next to a lockbox in the lobby. It just needs to be convenient and respect anonymity,” Alvord said.

It took some initial prodding to get people to use the online form, he said. “Once people realized we truly wanted to identify and correct problems and not place blame, the reports started flowing in. We now average about seven submissions per week.” Reports range from ATC issues to weather challenges or even dispatch procedures. All the information is tracked to identify trends that result in improvements to policies, procedures, and curriculum, Alvord said.

The final step is to develop and foster an effective safety culture. This takes time and effort. “It’s important to help everyone feel included in the SMS process,” Alvord said. “It’s easy to give safety lip service. To really effect change, every person involved with your organization needs to know that their ideas and suggestions are valued. We evaluate and track every safety submission in a timely manner. Management reviews those reports, and we discuss key issues and suggestions at our monthly CFI meetings.”

When asked to share some specific examples of improvements that have been made, Alvord said, “Our ramp is a pretty tight area. We implemented some specific procedures and markings to improve ramp safety while minimizing congestion and delays.

“We also implemented procedures for frost removal before first flights of the day. This keeps our planes clean, mitigates schedule delays, and clients appreciate not having to track down people to help,” Alvord said. “Our line techs used to be under front desk/customer service, but we found that making a change to the organization chart and putting them under flight ops effectively enabled them to become our eyes and ears to capture issues that otherwise would not have been reported. Each of these changes were a direct result of input from our reporting system.”

As for advice to other flight school owners and managers, Alvord said, “Remember that SMS is not just a manual where you can swap out the company name and call it good. Effective SMS really is a culture that must be created and supported from the top down. The owner and flight school managers must set the example and make it clear that every employee, regardless of position, has the authority and responsibility to participate. Be persistent, but patient. Start small and realize that anything you do is a step in the right direction; improving safety and your entire business.”

Learn more about SMS on the FAA’s website.

The book Safety Management Systems in Aviation, by Alan J. Stolzer, also may be a useful resource.

Learn more about Rainier Flight Service and connect with Gordon Alvord at the website.

Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He currently flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while operating his own flight training business. Connect with Jim at his website (

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