The military have started to introduce civil-style safety management systems as a way of reducing accidents. But are they moving fast enough?

Most military air arms seem to think that sticking flight-safety posters in crew rooms and hangars, and operating a foreign-object damage-control programme constitutes a safety management system (SMS). But they are just parts of one. In fact it is unusual for national air forces to operate an audited SMS even if they practise many individual measures that lead to good safety performance.

The practice of audited safety management has arrived only in recent years in a few of the larger countries' defence forces - and even in the civil sector, it remains rare. However, the International Air Transport Association has recently finished designing its IATA operational safety audit (IOSA) and has just awarded the first licence to carry out IOSA audits to an independent organisation - Lufthansa's Aviation Quality Services.

Safety assurance

IOSA's growth as an accepted system will gradually increase both the financial incentive and the need for airlines to set up an internal SMS. Without one, they are unlikely to pass a modern safety audit and win the assured cachet that will, in due course, attach to IOSA approval - airlines will be able to carry the IOSA logo if their audit is current.

In Europe, via the European Union's new centralised statutory authority, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is due to go operational at the end of this month, there will be another standardising pressure on the airlines. EASA will eventually force an SMS on those that fail to set one up.

Military aviation has some challenges it does not share with civil aviation, but most of the ideas and methodology being adopted by the more forward-thinking air arms were applied first by the civil aviation industry. Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, may have addressed the Safe skies Australia seminar in Canberra last week, but he was one of only two military people speaking in a two-day conference otherwise dominated by civil aviation people and safety science academics. The event serves to illustrate, however, how much civil and military safety experts believe they have to share.

So systematic safety management is coming - even if not for some time yet - to those air forces that do not have it. An SMS, whether military or civil, is a closed-loop system that encourages reporting, and has an architecture ensuring safety reports filed by personnel and relevant technical/operational data are not only recorded but acted on. The effectiveness and possible repercussions of any action are monitored before an event is closed, and the results are placed in an active database that can detect and track trends. The system architecture should delineate clear lines of responsibility at each stage, and command and control overall. Some organisations with a good safety culture have all the components of an SMS except for the closed-loop characteristics, so it is not a giant leap for them to set one up.

A good SMS database gives flight safety departments effective weaponry in arguing for what they believe is needed. But even this is no guarantee of success, since military budgeting is ultimately politically determined, and politicians have competing non-military priorities to consider.

The military do not have the stimulus of international pressures to encourage them to create an internal SMS. Although there are cost pressures to become safer - reducing attrition rates of aircraft and aircrew - the need for sharp-end equipment has traditionally been more likely to win in procurement arguments, according to senior officers, than persuasion deployed in favour of equipment that would reduce losses during training or operations. Unless, that is, it is possible to deploy accurate data-driven arguments showing the tangible results of improved equipment, cockpit design, training or procedures.

The UK Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the British Army will soon be able to upgrade dramatically their flight accident/incident databases. The RAF's existing system runs on primitive software hosted on "ancient" hardware, according to UK Defence Aviation Safety Centre (DASC) director Air Cdre Alan Hudson, but the three services will consolidate their individual databases at the same time.


The DASC is only around two years old, having evolved from separate centres for each of the three air arms. The new database system - a part of the Defence Aviation Infrastructure (DAI) computer network for which industry software/hardware bids are being assessed - is to be known as the flight safety information management system (FSIMS). The DAI and the FSIMS have long been planned and anticipated, but the ability to contain frustration at the interminably slow movement of service procurement is an essential quality for those who work hard to specify systems and long to be able to use the benefits of their creation.

Since the DASC was formed, says Hudson, a priority system has been put in place to identify the most effective safety equipment needed for the aircraft or for training, "putting us in a better position to fight our corner" within limited overall budgets. The DASC has also been responsible for designing the template for SMS throughout the UK air arms, and this is now being adapted for application at command, station and unit level.

FSIMS, with its higher capacity, improved processing and greater accessibility will be able to handle the multi-faceted issue of human factors (HF) in incidents and accidents. This is important, because as aircraft and equipment become more reliable, HF constitutes a higher proportion of causal or contributory factors in the events. Incidents, says Hudson, are less likely to be HF related than accidents, but are less likely to be reported at all - especially when reporting is complex.

For incidents involving "honest mistakes", the RAF introduced its HF open occurrence reporting system (HFOR), which Hudson says is working well. He gives an example of the benefit that has been derived - a modification to the Sepecat Jaguar cockpit. Simulator practice and, occasionally, operational sorties showed that the engine low-pressure cock levers were so close together that, in the event of an engine failure, it was too easy to shut down the serviceable engine by mistake. Now a gate has been fitted which makes shutting down the wrong engine more difficult.

The DASC came into being for many reasons, but the main factor is that the UK's three military air arms conduct more joint operations than ever, according to Hudson, and this co-operation will only increase as rapid deployment forces and the capability for intervention become the standard raison d'etre for the world's main military forces.

So having separate safety oversight organisations "just doesn't make sense" any more, he says, pointing out that an RAF pilot may be operating a Royal Navy BAE Systems Harrier, or vice-versa. There are clear benefits from pooling information like accident and incident data, adds Hudson, explaining that - from the flight safety point of view - the services may not have been as different from each other as they might have thought. "The same messages tend to come from the experiences of each," he says. But the data pool is larger now so trends should show more quickly. Centralising control and administration is not an objective, but establishing best practices and making them common to all three air arms is, adds Hudson.

Winning attention

Air displays are perhaps the most popular means available to military air arms all over the world for showing taxpayers what they get for their money, and for recruiting. So when safety at an air show, or during practice for one, goes wrong, the show not only fails in its purpose, it can also be a tragedy. Last year was bad for air show safety, with seven events where accidents occurred either during preparatory practice or the show itself, and in terms of spectator casualties one in Ukraine was even worse than the 1988 disaster at Ramstein air base, Germany. The Ramstein event, involving a collision between aircraft of the Italian Frecce Tricolore display team in which one of the aircraft crashed into the crowd, saw 70 people killed. At Sknyliv air base, Lviv, Ukraine, in July, 83 spectators were killed and 116 injured when a single SukhoiSu-27 went out of control with too little height and speed to complete a manoeuvre safely. The pilots ejected safely.

There is a system for managing air show safety. It will be interesting to see, when the Ukraine disaster report emerges, whether the system or its components were followed before and during the show.

Source: Flight International