The Dark Side of Adaptation; “Normalizing!”

March 11, 2016 DStG

Adaptability is an important defining trait of human existence and probably most responsible for our survival and growth as a species. Humans live happily in every corner of our planet from polar wastelands to equatorial rain forests and in every case seem to adapt and flourish. I am sure you have seen pictures, or experienced first hand, some amazing conditions people become comfortable with and contentedly call “home.” At first it might be awkward and weird but pretty soon it is “normal” as we adapt!

Adaptability is also an important trait for pilots. We must overcome diverse challenges transitioning to new equipment or flying in new environments. These surprises at first require courage and ingenuity, but ultimately we adapt and become comfortable. Air Inuit in northern Canada has an Op. Spec. to fly passengers “VFR” in Twin Otters with only 300′ ceiling and one mile viz (though this requires <90K, flaps 10 degrees and synthetic vision system for safety).

Challenger Space Shuttle LaunchChallengerExplosion

 

 

 

There is, however, a dark side to adaptability and that is the “normalization of deviance.” This term was coined by Diane Vaughan, a professor at Columbia University investigating NASA’s Challenger launch decision in 1986. The process of “normalization of deviance” is when a person or organization becomes so familiar with an odd or deviant behavior that it no longer seems strange and alarming but becomes accepted as the “new normal.” This chameleon psychic process seems to be an integral part of our human survival mechanism. Given time we seem to adapt and accept just about any deviant structure and made it an accepted part of our world. This is also why a standard objective operating procedure (and the discipline to follow it) is such an essential tool in aviation safety.

NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle was being launched on increasingly shorter intervals. And despite the solid booster “O” rings leaking at launch temperatures much lower than specified, time pressures, historic success (the absence of immediate bad outcomes) and “group think” led to acceptance of these increasingly unsafe conditions. This “normalization of deviance” ultimately resulted in a dramatically public national tragedy. The fact that a similar NASA accident occurred only 8 years later with the “normal shedding of fuel tank insulation” on launch shows how pernicious this problem can be. (The only benefit gained from these tragedies is that recent work by NASA on accident theory is amazing.)

CognitionPicture“So that was NASA but how does this effect us in our everyday flying?” Please look around your airport carefully. I am sure you have been witness to a pilot who has strangely unsafe practices that they personally regard as “normal?” Over time these “rogue pilots” have unfortunately drifted far from objectively accepted practices and personally “normalized”  practices and techniques that are clearly unsafe. Maybe they have just become “less than proficient” but this too can become “acceptable” or “justified” due to high cost or time constraints. We pilots are a pretty respectful and tolerant bunch so often this “accident waiting to happen” continues unchallenged until the inevitable occurs. Let’s change this please and take action *before* the accident. “Friends don’t let friends fly unsafe!”

Please check out safety writer Dr. Bill Rhodes definition of “scary pilots” in an article by John King. Tony Kern documents this phenomenon in the military in his book Rogue Pilot. And popular blogger Tom Rapp explains a scary 135 charter example in detail in his examination of normalization in the Bedford Gulfstream accident. This dangerous “normalization of deviance” occurs even more easily in private aviation where the only normative filter is a (often perfunctory) 2 year flight review. Please don’t stand by if you are aware of cases of compliance drift and normalization. Embrace your normalizing friend and talk some sense into them, carefully and honestly. Let’s embrace the same culture change that cured a lot of unsafe drunk driving; “Friends don’t let friends fly unsafe!” It would be much better to have this friend mad at you than injured. Let’s modify our culture and help everyone embrace a higher standard of safety in their flying. And please Join SAFE in our mission of pursuing aviation excellence. The amazing member benefits alone make this commitment painless and fun. See you at the airport.


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