The One Fear Which Haunts Aviation


It’s time to be frank. Aviation is fearful.

“But aviation is safer than ever. The accident rate is at an all time low. The chances of death in an airplane are far less than riding in a car,” you say.

Yep. The chances of physical death in an airplane are low. That fear has been managed. There is another fear. One more subtle. One which brings about a slow death.

The Fear That Haunts Aviation

Aviation understands that one mistake could cost you your life, or even worse, the lives of those for whom you are responsible.

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

— Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930’s.

We have gone to great lengths to rid our industry of mistakes. We have put into place numerous standards, regulations, training programs, and safety practices to mitigate any dangers. And yet, there is  one variable that seems to elude us: human error.

Herein lies the fear which haunts aviation. The fear of failure, not death, is the new enemy. It is striking quietly and with little notice on all levels; personal, departmental, and governmental while we look about straining to find clues to the assailant.

How the Assailant Gained Access

Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that ingenuity, trust, collaboration, and trial and error are important to the growth of an industry. In fact, they are just as important as conforming to rules, meeting standards, and complying with regulations.

Somewhere along the way, people have become less important than processes, programs, and procedures. Creativity and ingenuity have been replaced with standardization. “Trial and error” has became a dirty phrase while “compliance” tops the charts for discussion and product development. Other industries actively fight against the fear of failure.

“It’s important to create an atmosphere in which people aren’t afraid of failing – since this is the way we learn and prosper together.”

– George Zimmer in his article Grounding Conscious Capitalism in Shared Servant Leadership.

Did you catch that? “It’s important to create an atmosphere in which people aren’t afraid of failing.” Whoa. That is not happening in aviation.

How to Fight the Fear of Failure

Creating an atmosphere in which people aren’t afraid of failing is a daunting task in aviation. Fear has altered our mindset.

Instead of using our problem solving skills, ingenuity, intelligence and common sense, we prefer to comply, fill out the paperwork, and keep under the radar.

Instead of working together, encouraging one another to excel, and dreaming big, we prefer to do what we are told with the least amount of hassle.

Instead of training hard, learning continuously, growing professionally, and gaining confidence in our skill, we fear getting caught or making an omission in procedure.

Fighting the Fear of Failure is an uphill battle. Although the strategy is yet to be completely developed, it would seem to involve valuing people, encouraging discussion and collaboration on all levels (governmental, departmental, and among individuals), building trust, and making training applicable and practical. It would also seem to require a reversal of the strategies which propagate fear.

“Well are we just to try something and then hope that if we fail we don’t kill someone?” you may be asking. Of course not. The pendulum needn’t sway too far to the other side. Hopefully, we can contemplate solutions without discussing extremes. If the notion of continuing our present course or advocating a “free for all” are the only two alternatives, it might be a sign that the Fear of Failure is stronger than we think.

In order to grow an industry – to make it prosperous – and to encourage a constant state of learning, it’s important to create an atmosphere in which people aren’t afraid of failing. Can it happen in aviation? Should it happen in aviation? What will happen if we don’t consider this statement and continue to allow a slow death to ingenuity and trust? It’s worth pondering, don’t you think? Let’s ponder together. Join the discussion here, unless you are afraid.

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6 Responses to The One Fear Which Haunts Aviation

  1. Steve Charbonneau says:

    This is the most insightful blog post yet! You’ve nailed it. In aviation, we never want to be labeled as someone who fails – failure is not an option – and we therefore are always on the defensive when it comes to addressing opportunities for improvement. The fact is, in most cases, making mistakes is an opportunity to improve and we should accept that as a gift.

    The best way to begin reversing this mindset is through open and honest flight debriefings. Flight debriefings need to be balanced and inward looking – crew members should discuss both the areas where the flight went well and areas that could have been better. They should be self critical – and allow others to do the same. Try not to criticize, but support our team mates and compliment their behavior and actions – especially if they are willing to be honest about areas for improvement.

    Thanks for your insight!

  2. Kyle and Linda Reynolds says:

    Thank you, Steve, for having the courage to speak out on this issue. Analyzing the way we view and conduct flight briefings is a practical way to begin changing this mindset. Excellent idea on how to move our industry forward and to help each of us get better at what we do!

  3. Robert Hall says:

    There was a time when air passengers had two real friends…The Ailine Pilots Association (ALPA) and NASA. ALPA took care of the cockpit crew and NASA reporting had impunity from violations which freed air crews to tell it like it really was. Unless it was criminal the reporting person could not be touched. ALPA has degenerated and the NASA program was mysteriously discontinued. Without the NASA program I don’t see how much can be learned, but any effort is worthwhile.

  4. Rob Mark says:

    We live in a world where minimum standards, like those we live up to on a checkride, have become the ONLY standard too many flight departments live by. “Why be incredible, even great, when good enough works well enough to keep my job?”

    The less we try, the poorer we become at trying anything at all that might be new or challenging. And again, why bother when you know you can leave recurrent with all the boxes checked?

    As I heard Tony Kern say last year, “But what if there comes a day when life throws a situation at you that demands more than just minimum performance, maybe even requires more than you’ve ever been trained for?”

    I guess we just pause the simulator eh … unless of course we’re in an airplane.

    Rob Mark

  5. Kyle and Linda Reynolds says:

    Thank you, gentlemen, for your insight as well. You both seem to stress an important fact. We cannot rely on other entities to continually push us to excel and keep our industry moving forward. It is up to us.

  6. Joginder Wazir says:

    The One Fear Which Haunts

    Aviation failures, in general, have inherent fear factor. But if people feel that there is an atmosphere of fear in flight operations, then someone is out deriving unholy pleasure and power by overplaying failures. This fear will defeat the objectives of SMS. It needs to be looked into.

    Also, why would one go for ‘trial and error’ or ‘ingenuity’ in normal flight operations? Once it is accepted that aviation is terribly unforgiving of mistakes as they can involve heavy costs, there is no room left for ‘trial-and-error’ or ‘ingenuity’. Flights, like other aviation processes, are pre-determined exercises, to be conducted in a planned manner, to yield planned results. And, when faced with, or on observing an unusual situation, every person has to use his ‘problem solving skills, ingenuity, intelligence and common sense.’ Operating a flight involves system that is built on global expertise. It will be right to adhere to the system than engaging in trial and error or in being ingenious. I am of the view that except for emergency situations all actions should be planned on ground.

    As for debriefings, someone commenting on another platform has stated that ‘debriefings improve future performance’. In addition, briefings and debriefings create a spirit of working as a team.

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