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Standard Operating Procedures
Standard Operating Procedures
Safety Wise

wpe5.jpg (5720 bytes)SAFETY WISE

March 1999

  Good morning, at ease ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. Today, class we are going to talk about "norms" and more specifically the fact that you are no ordinary pilot. Insurance is protection against risks that are unpredictable for individuals, yet predictable for a larger group. You don’t know for sure whether or not your aircraft will crash, (barring you suicidal types) but we can predict roughly how many airplanes of the same type will crash across the country. This combination of unpredictability in a specific instance and predictability in general is what makes insurance a business, (aside from the fact that they have investigators which will try desperately not to pay off owing to something which has been overlooked, - i.e. see my previous article about weight and balance). So, over time and experience and quality professional instruction we develop our own SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures. SOPs should be generated to maintain the widest possible margin of safety as we proceed through our daily flying routines. These SOPs are derived from FAR’s, POH, AIM, IAC and any number and variety of alphabet soup organizations. Most have been written due to some incident which has caused enough "splash" to work their way into a rule or procedure. It goes to the very core of our being to occasionally give pause and think of a better way, perhaps an easier way; or an opportunity to maximize our time and effort. Sometimes our interpretation of the signals we can see compel us to cut corners when sound dispassionate judgment might dictate otherwise. Here is where things may start to go wrong. Indeed, there is a significant number within our pilot group who would contend the mark of a superior airman is one who can play it by ear in lieu of disciplined pre-planning, or one who may readily adopt a better way, even if that "better" way happens to be in contravention to safe established procedures.

PE00095A.gif (1357 bytes)To follow that notion one step further; who reading this regards himself as simply an average pilot? When that question is asked in a room full of pilots, I can "guarondamtee" nary a hand is ever raised ... And perhaps rightly so. For all the training, preparation, sweat and time invested in our flying passions, few among us consider themselves just an ordinary pilot. On the premise that Standard Operating Procedures were created for the average pilot, where then does that leave most of us - at least as we see ourselves? The airlines have done a survey whereby they figured out that 35% of all accidents follow a simple violation of Standard Operating Procedures. These have been further identified as cockpit "norms". Norms are unwritten rules and practices generally accepted by the majority of a group. They usually are insidious and rarely enhance safety. We buy into them cause they offer an easier way (i.e. don’t need to verify the fuel level and drain the sump/use a checklist), we buy into them because we want to conform to our peers (i.e. yeah I’ll slow roll this puppy on take off just like Ace did), we mainly buy in to them because we are NOT MERELY AVERAGE! WE ARE NOT ORDINARY! If you have recently experienced a "blooper" where you suddenly realized "oh sh*t" forgot to do something...then that is a little reminder that your SOPs are getting slack and you are slipping into a "norm". It is a subtle harbinger of future danger...a low key warning that is eventually preceded by a "splash" if not corrected. The acceptance of norms lessens situational awareness amongst the best of us. The decision is yours. You can buy into norms, and will probably escape the gremlins for a while, however ponder this: The insurance companies whose mega-dollar business is based upon statistical predictability would be quick to remind you that each time you fly, the chances of flying incident or "splash" free diminish with every flight you take. But then again...YOU’RE NOT AN AVERAGE OR ORDINARY PILOT!

Capt. Ron Spencer can be contacted via email at

Previous Safety Wise articles:
[A Weighty Situation, Nov. 98]  


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