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Plato's Cave

Posted 5 years 134 days ago ago by Randy Mains

I attended the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) HAI Symposium held at Heli-Expo in Louisville entitled “Safety and the Bottom Line” and learned that in the team’s accident analysis it was revealed that 84% of accidents included a Standard Problem Statement of “Pilot Judgment & Actions.”  Good crew resource management practices seemingly would ‘cure’ that malady.  So why haven’t they?  The answer lies in Plato’s Cave.

Having flown for three decades overseas, I was reminded of the expatriate’s corollary to the allegory of Plato’s Cave. The cave in my case represents America.  Here is how the corollary goes:  Imagine a community living in a cave where all of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs is met; biological, physical, and emotional.  Imagine further that you’re a member of that community wondering what might be outside the cave.  You ask your friends what they think and they reply, “Why do you care what’s outside the cave?  We’ve got everything we need right here.”

You gaze up to the opening at the top of the cave and pause for a moment to ponder their reply. “But there might be something better up there,” you think out loud.

They laugh.  “How could it be better than what we have right here?”

One night you decide to find out so you ‘escape’ from the cave and quickly discover a whole new and exciting world out there. You witness a new paradigm, a new way of doing things, different from anything you’ve done or seen in the past, and much, much better than the way things are done back in the cave.  

You’re eager to return to share this new-found knowledge.  To your great surprise, and disappointment, you’re ridiculed, scorned, and scoffed at for even suggesting change. The community is loath to alter the status quo because of self-interest and apathy, but primarily due to ignorance.

I left the American cave in December 1984, to accept a job when the Royal Oman Police hired me to set up a country-wide helicopter air ambulance program.  I quickly came to realize that if the same practices, procedures, and attitudes I saw flying with former military British pilots (who had all flown hard IFR on the North Sea) were adopted and followed back home using effective CRM, the helicopter accident rate in American would plummet.  

The lessons I learned flying in Oman were reinforced when I flew as a helicopter air ambulance (HAA) pilot for the King in Saudi Arabia for three years with several British pilots, operating a twin-engine, 20-place, Bell 214ST off the king’s 500-foot yacht. Then my beliefs were further cemented with 10 years of flying for Abu Dhabi Aviation with airline transport pilots from 20 countries.

While outside the cave for those 30 years, I was a flight examiner as well as a certified CRM assessor in the two-crew cockpit and attained my CRM ground Instructor certification from Global Air Training in Cheshire, England.  

What I learned is that for CRM delivery to ‘work’ it must be presented by a trained facilitator. Being trained is important because CRM is very much concerned with attitudes and behaviors.  Most adults do not like being instructed in how to behave and what to think because attitudes and behaviors are based on a person’s past experiences, values, and beliefs, which vary from person to person. Therefore, telling people to behave differently carries the implication that their values and beliefs are wrong, and this is not convincing. People generally behave in a way that they think is rational, and often find it easy to justify their behavior to themselves and others. What they may not be aware of, however, is the effects their behavior has on other people or the safety of the operation; and that an alternative behavior, which does not question their values but has a more positive effect, may be something they might wish to consider.

Learning the technique of facilitation allows the process to occur.  Facilitation can be used to reinforce effective behavior because it gives people an understanding of why they are good, which encourages their continued positive development.

After the USHST presented their findings that morning I stepped up to the microphone and asked the representative of the FAA on the panel, Jim Viola, “If, according to your study, the majority of the accidents are human-factor related, how about the FAA mandate CRM instructors in America be trained to the same standard as required in Europe?”  

He answered, “It is up to the operators to employ best practices.”  

And that’s the conundrum. In the FAA’s 25-page Aviation Circular 120-51E on CRM and the 17-page AC 00-64 on air medical resource management (AMRM), the FAA mentions the training should be done by “a facilitator with special training in assessment and debriefing techniques.”  In AC 120-51E the word “facilitator” is mentioned five times.  In AC 00-64 “facilitator” is mentioned eight times.  The FAA, however, offers no guidance in either publication as to how someone can learn to become a trained facilitator, which is not the case in Europe.   

In Europe, two publications: Civil Aviation Publication CAP 737 (242 pages) and Standards Document No. 29, (42 pages) offer more than 10 times the information on what and how CRM training must be accomplished.

According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), anyone who desires to become a trained CRM facilitator must first meet certain criteria outlined in their publications, then attend a course to learn current sixth-generation CRM theory and facilitation skills.  A CRM examiner then evaluates the facilitator giving a class.

I offer a bleak prediction:  Until we in the American helicopter world learn to embrace CRM training the way it is taught and evaluated in Europe, we will not see a significant reduction in accidents.  The airlines managed to turn around an unacceptable accident rate 35 years ago by adopting CRM training using a trained facilitator. If the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team hopes to see a significant reduction in accidents they must address the human factors that are causing 84% of those accidents (94% in HAA), something that can only be accomplished through effective CRM training as the airlines and our friends outside the cave practice it.

About the Author:
Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected]