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Debriefing at ICAS 2011

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I'm at the 2011 annual convention of the International Council of Air Shows at Paris Las Vegas.  It's an annual gathering of almost everyone who matters in the airshow industry.  The image above is from the welcome reception last night.  ICAS is always festive.  It's a reuinion of really good friends who might not see much of each other over the course of the year.  Or, if they do see each other at airshows, everybody's working and there isn't time to catch up.

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This year has been more challenging than other recent years for the airshow industry.  After two years with no airshow fatalities, the 2011 season saw a number of them.  I was present at Selfridge ANGB in August when one of them occurred.  Several of my airshow acquaintances are not back in Vegas this year and we all feel the empty space that this leaves.

I leave out, for this discussion, the events at the Reno Air Races in September.  Airshows are a completely different animal from air races.  Air races are exciting and cool, but they're different.  Air races involve a competition in which the outcome is in question (e.g. you don't know who's going to win the race and much of the maneuvering is necessarily unplanned).  In airshows, everything is scripted.  The outcome is not contested and each performer flies a set program that must , among other things, have been practiced recently.  It's simply a different kind of activity.  No better, no worse.  Just different.

The airshow industry is one made up of professionals that take the calculus of risk very seriously.  And, yesterday, an annual event occurred that is one of the things that makes me most proud to hang out with these people.  At 3:30 yesterday, the performers walked into a room and closed the door behind them.  No media (including me).  No distractions.  Nothing that could compromise an environment in which full, frank, and even brutal discussion can occur.

In that room, the performers conducted a debrief of the 2011 season.  What went wrong.  What went right.  What they need to do in 2012 and beyond.  Many in the airshow industry refer to the standard of airshow performance this way.  "Perfection is expected.  Excellence will be accepted."   I see that put into action at airshows and at conferences like this all year.

Airshow fatalitities were averaging a dozen or so each year in the years leading up to the 1991 season.  In the winter preceding the 1991 season, ICAS assumed responsibility for the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation program.  In the years after that, the number of fatalities was cut in half.  In 2009 and 2010, there were no airshow performer fatalities at all at airshows.  And there hasn't been a spectator fatality in decades.  The process that happens both here at the convention and out in the field is largely responsible for that.

This mentality is important to any kind of aviation or anything else worth doing.  It doesn't matter who you are or how good you are.  You must be willing to leave your ego at the door and give and accept criticism of your processes, practices, techniques, and training.

You're reading this because you've come to AOPA's site to learn some more about general aviation and perhaps think about taking to the skies yourself.  Maybe you didn't expect to read about airshow people and the processes that they use.  You almost certainly didn't come here to read about a rough airshow season.  But the airshow mentality can and should be a big part of the way in which you approach GA.

No reasonable person in the GA industry will tell you that GA is absolutely safe.  Fact:  It isn't.  GA pilots don't fly the profiles that airshow performers do, but we face some risk, just the same.

The thing that makes me most proud - and the reason that you should want to join the tribe of general aviation pilots - is that most pilots understand risk and understand how to mitigate it.  We train for everything we can think of.  We fly to standards.  And the very best of of debrief every single flight.  We talk about what we did right.  We talk about what we did wrong.  We talk about how to improve.  There is no rank, no seniority, and no free pass.  The laws of physics don't give a darn how many hours are in your logbook and we know it.  Some of us even adopt the phraseology that the Blue Angels use in their debriefs, even after an really savage critique: "I'll fix my safeties and I'm glad to be here."

We know, based on solid evidence, exactly what we can do to reduce known risks.  AOPA, the FAA, and other organizations study aviation safety exhaustively.  There's very little mystery.  We know where the low-hanging fruit is.  We know where we need to make the more difficult improvements.  And we talk about it constantly.

We can make (and we have made!) general aviation much more safe than it was in its infancy and early development.  And a large part of that is full and frank discussion of the risk, how we deal with it, and what we're going to do on the very next flight we take in order to make that happen.

How would you like to be able to say that you hang out with people who are this open, honest, and credible?  You can, but the price of admission is high.  Perfection is expected.  Excellence will be accepted.  Sound like the kind of challenge and the kind of tribe with which you want to be associated?

I thought so.  See you up there.


One Response to “Debriefing at ICAS 2011”

  1. "AOPA, the FAA, and other organizations study aviation safety exhaustively. There's very little mystery...We know where we need to make the more difficult improvements. And we talk about it constantly."

    I'm still wondering what caused the Reno Air Race accident. I'm still wondering what lessons we need to learn from the Air France tragedy. I'm still wondering why the US Air Force thinks airplanes fall out of the sky when the exceed sixty degrees of bank.

    There's an immense amount of mystery. Human behavior baffles me--why would the leader of the FAA make a ridiculously foolish decision to DWI--does he make the same kinds of foolish choices when he weighs the safety of aviators?

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