“I always fly safely, knowing that I will arrive at the scene of the accident a micro-second before you!”
Flying is statistically one of the safest ways to travel. (In a future blog, we’ll discuss safety and the geography of commercial air travel.) Because of intentional redundancy in commercial aviation, what we call “defense in depth”, it is very rare for one person’s actions to lead to an accident. System design is “fault tolerant and fail safe”, resistant to catastrophic breakdowns because it is created to ‘fail’ to an operationally safe condition.
Some years ago, Dr. James Reason proposed a “Swiss Cheese” accident model. Picture a wedge of Swiss cheese, riddled with holes. Shoot a bullet at the cheese. Only a perfect shot can pass through all the holes cleanly. If the wedge of cheese represents the aviation system and the bullet a breakdown or error, it would require a very rare set of circumstances for the bullet to pass through the cheese unobstructed, leading to an accident.
US Air Flight #1549, which ditched in the Hudson River in New York City on the 15th of January this year, and Continental Flight #3407, which crashed near Buffalo New York on the 12th of February, represent two such events. (More about both of these accidents in a future blog) In the “miracle on the Hudson”, a reverse perfect storm led to 100% survival; with the Continental crash, just the opposite was true and everyone perished. Prior to these accidents, it had been almost 2 ½ years since the last US commercial accident. During that time, US airlines operated in excess of 16 million flights and transported over 2 billion passengers without a single accident or fatality!
Safety never occurs by accident, pardon the pun! Rather, it results from many years of intentional design, continuous improvement, and thorough and rigorous standards and training. Today’s safety system is built upon the knowledge gained from yesterday’s accidents. Each accident teaches us invaluable lessons which are then applied to future operations. Perfection is never possible. It is, however, a constant goal.
It will be my pleasure in coming blogs to highlight different aspects of the commercial aviation system, and discuss current events such as the US Air, Continental, and Turkish Air accidents. Your feedback will be essential so we’ll include a “because you asked” section to highlight issues and questions of importance to you.
During my many years as a captain, I made it a practice to greet my passengers during boarding. Occasionally, they told me to “fly safe.” My response was always the same – I always fly safely, knowing that I will arrive at the scene of the accident a micro-second before you!
Stow your loose items, take your seats, and buckle up as we prepare for take-off on our flight into aviation history. It will be my pleasure to be your captain on this and future flights. Thanks for being with us today and welcome aboard.