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Michael Graham Is an Aviation Safety Champion

Michael Graham became a member of NTSB on Jan. 3, 2020. Earlier, he was with Textron Aviation from 1997 to 2019. From 2012 he served as the company’s director of flight operations safety, security and standardization. His responsibilities included managing the flight operation’s SMS, the emergency response plan and supervising air safety investigations. He was instrumental in merging the Beechcraft flight operations with Cessna’s after its acquisition. Graham also started the company’s aviation safety action program, which became a model for Part 91 operators. Graham has provided safety leadership as chair of the Air Charter Safety Foundation and Board of Governors, and head of NBAA’s Single Pilot Safety Working Group. He earned Flight Safety Foundation’s 2019 Business Aviation Meritorious Service Award. Graham began his career as a U.S. naval aviator, has 10,000 flight hours and is type rated in six different Citation models.

On Twitter: @MikeGrahamNTSB

Q: During your long career you have had a chance to view safety from numerous vantage points – military aviator, OEM pilot, NBAA Safety Committee member and NTSB member. How has your safety perspective evolved?

When I started in aviation safety, the focus was on an overly simplified version of safety awareness and risk management. The safety department was often seen as “just the office down the hall.” When safety would get involved, the department would simply inform employees of various hazards and safety issues so employees wouldn’t be tripped up or caught off guard by the identified hazard. In other words, the department was always in reaction mode.

After an incident, management looked for someone or something to blame before truly understanding why the incident occurred – that always seemed backwards to me. At that time, safety and risk management was also driven a lot by the hazards identified by management – not those who were flying or performing maintenance. This left a lot of risks out there that we were not aware of and should have been mitigating. And when management did identify what they believed to be a hazard, it was addressed by basic awareness or, occasionally, by implementing or changing a policy.

With the advent of safety management systems, I have fully bought into the systematic approach to safety. Safety is no longer simply reacting to incidents or accidents, but is about bringing safety-conscious behavior to the forefront of an organization – every day, every task. This allows organizations to identify and mitigate hazards before an incident occurs. The most important part of this is employee engagement and full participation. Each employee must be empowered and understand that they are the safety officer of the operation. Without their reporting and involvement, the operation will be blind to the many hazards and risks that are facing the operation daily.

When an incident does occur, we are no longer asking ourselves “Who?” or “What?” but rather “How?” and “Why?” Key to the identification of hazards and risk mitigation is data. Gone are the days of management guessing where the hazards are. Safety now relies on data from all levels of the organization, including employee reporting, flight data monitoring, and a variety of other risk-assessment tools to identify hazards, chart trends, and drive safety changes through risk mitigation.

Q: You were responsible for Textron Aviation flight operation’s SMS and aviation safety action program. How would you persuade operators that don’t have such safety programs that they are worth the time and effort to establish and follow?

I would first ask those operators two questions:

  1. What are the hazards and risks to your operation?
  2. How do you know?

Too many aviation managers see only some of the major risks and hazards. Without a safety program that analyzes and assesses risks from every level, managers won’t find out about the risks they are not aware of or even how effective their current policies or procedures are at mitigating the risks that they have identified.

“We should encourage training to proficiency, not just currency. There are many pilots out there who are current but not prepared for inadvertent IMC or other emergencies that are recoverable. ”

This is where an SMS comes in. It’s a living program that empowers all employees as safety officers and continuously evaluates the changing risks associated with the operation and assures their mitigation. An SMS is a simply structured management system that isn’t and shouldn’t be complicated. It also promotes safety-conscious behavior and a positive safety culture within the organization.

An aviation safety action program (ASAP) is a key element of risk management and safety assurance within the SMS. It provides employees with a non-punitive reporting system to alert management of a risk or hazard to the operation while protecting the employee. ASAP is designed to determine the how and why something happened while giving leadership a view of risks to the operation they are unaware of and a means to mitigate them.

SMS and ASAP go together. They are simple, effective and inexpensive! How can you afford not to have them in your operation?

Q: While business aviation’s safety record is excellent, there always are ways that safety can be improved, particularly in the single-pilot segment. In what ways do you think NTSB and NBAA can work together to address their respective Top Safety Focus Areas?

There are two elements of training that I would like the single-pilot community to embrace.

First, pilots should not see currency as the finish line for their training. I view currency as the bare minimum. We should encourage training to proficiency, not just currency. There are many pilots out there who are current but not prepared for inadvertent IMC or other emergencies that are recoverable. The NTSB sees too many aircraft accidents that a proficient pilot should have been able to avoid if they were adept in their aircraft knowledge and skill level.

Second, I believe simulator training is key to effective training. Simulator training provides a risk-free environment that can challenge the pilot to sharpen their airmanship, aeronautical decision making and instrument skills. It also provides a platform to experience and practice the unexpected, so pilots learn to stay ahead of the airplane, improve their situational awareness, and be better prepared for the unforeseen emergency.

We also must continue to promote thorough flight-risk assessments before and during flights. Without an additional crew member to flight plan, preflight and monitor enroute, single-pilot operators must be prepared for any contingency and always respect the unexpected.

This is especially important when an issue surfaces inflight that was not expected based on all available preflight information. When that unexpected event occurs, a pilot’s aeronautical decision-making in those moments is critical.

The NTSB cannot improve the safety of the single-pilot community by itself. We need organizations and operators to continue amplifying the single-pilot safety message. I am encouraged to see NBAA engaging with the single-pilot community to promote safer operations and raise the safety bar for all of business aviation.

Q: New and emerging technologies – unmanned aircraft systems, advanced air mobility and autonomous vehicles – are expected to transform the industry. What do you believe are the most important factors to ensure a safe and smooth transition to a more diverse mix of aircraft in the national airspace system?

I believe manufacturers, the FAA, and operators must work together to ensure these new aircraft are properly certified and approved for operation within the national airspace system. They should meet minimum performance safety requirements, including system safety assessments, to protect the public and operators alike.

Integration of these technologies with manned aircraft must also be thoroughly evaluated and planned to ensure safe separation and collision avoidance. Those are just some of the many areas of safety that will need to be assessed prior to widespread deployment.
Of course, then the operations should be continuously monitored to identify emerging hazards and mitigate the corresponding risks.

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