Preflight risk assessments can unlock communication and help create a strong safety culture. But you might have to overcome initial cynicism.

“This is bollocks!”

The pilot rounded on the preflight assessment trainer, cheeks flushed with indignation, nose wrinkled with disdain. “I’ve been managing risk for 20,000 hours without this!”

The trainer in question was Scott McKenzie, Chair of the New Zealand Helicopter Association, aviation consultant, and pilot.

“I get it,” Scott says now. “In fact, at one time, when I was in the air force and preflight risk assessments were being introduced, I was not far off having that attitude. I’m a complete convert now, but it can take a while to bed in.”

Scott’s patience with this particular pilot paid off, but it was the feedback from the rest of the flight crew that was the most telling.

“They really liked the introduction of the preflight risk assessment, because it required the pilot to communicate more clearly and provide relevant context.

“If the crew could see weather deteriorating, they could specifically ask, ‘What would this do to our risk assessment?’”

What’s the point of a preflight risk assessment?

The goal of the preflight risk assessment is simple, Scott explains.

“It helps pilots and crews to evaluate the relevant variables that could increase the likelihood of an accident. It helps them form a plan, allowing a flight to be completed even with many hazards, but with mitigations that reduce risk to acceptable levels. Or, it helps them say no, with sound reasoning.”

There’s a bunch of benefits that come with an effective preflight risk assessment process, Scott says.

“It provides a clear and consistent framework for decision-making, both before the flight, and if the situation changes during the flight.

“The process promotes good communication. It enables the flight crew to methodically consider the flight risks, and – more importantly – to make the information and situation visible to everyone.

“The assessment also helps determine when decisions need to be escalated, how, and to whom. It shares the risk and helps determine the level of risk the company is prepared to take.

“For example, there can be a lot of commercial pressure. A pilot may want to please the client and the company, and is task-focused, wanting to get things done. This possibly leads to them taking more risks than the company is willing to accept.

“Preflight risk assessments, when done properly, put checks and balances in place to prevent this.”

How to…

If you’re looking to introduce preflight risk assessments, or improve on your existing process, Scott’s advice is that it doesn’t have to be a large and overwhelming task.

“There are a range of different tools you can use. These include the Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT), the Operational Risk Assessment (ORA), and the Personal Flight Risk Assessment Tool (PFRA). They all have the same aim of assessing and mitigating risk effectively and promptly.

“Available in paper and electronic formats, the tools walk you through some simple questions and the risk is assessed against a score.

“Once mitigations are in place for the riskiest elements, the amended score will help you decide whether the flight should go ahead.”

Scott suggests you pick an example tool that suits you best. Set it up for your specific operations (for example, mountains versus coastal, tourism versus agricultural).

“Setting your risk levels in the first place is vital to making the assessment practical and effective.

“For commercial operators, this includes considering the risks you’re prepared to accept as a company, and what risks you’re happy for your pilots to take. Does that alter based on their experience?”

Then, simply start using your process. The system will work well only if you’re honest with yourself and your company, stick to the parameters set, and report when needed.

You can keep improving the process until you feel any glitches are ironed out.

Lachie Johnston, Staff Officer Rotary Wing in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, is another keen proponent of preflight risk assessments.

“It’s a leadership exercise,” he suggests. “The greatest success comes from people seeing leaders make proactive use of these tools.”

He adds that, while senior pilots and instructors are essential role models, “there’s nothing to stop any pilot using these tools on a personal level.”

Confidence to say ‘no’

Crucially, the preflight risk assessment helps pilots learn to say no.

“It can be really hard to say no in some environments, because it has implications for your revenue. However, it costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to have an accident. And it costs lives,” says Scott.

So how can a preflight risk assessment, which is often just one sheet of paper, be so transformative? Scott says the assessment helps to put a ‘score’ on risks, which in turn sets thresholds for how the flight will be done, if you need senior person approval, or if the flight will be postponed or cancelled.

“Factors that might influence the risk include the forecast visibility, complexity such as multiple aircraft in the mix, a flight going a long distance offshore, likely high-density altitude conditions, or no standard operating procedure in place for a particular activity.

“Preflight risk assessments can also set thresholds whereby a flight will simply not happen. This could include, for example, deteriorating weather or the pilot’s last ‘flight on type’ being more than two or three months before.

“Other benefits of preflight risk assessments can be as simple as enabling busy people to make good decisions in tight timeframes.

“Let’s say I’m chief pilot, but I’m away on a course tomorrow, so you’re the pilot.

“We’ve talked about how you’re going to manage the flight, but the next day the weather is worse than expected.

"Although I’m busy on my course, I’m up to speed with the preflight risk assessment, so you text or call me and I can provide advice quickly.

“So when people have a lot on, managing lots of things, the preflight risk assessment helps to keep up the communication when necessary.”

Everyone needs to do it

Preflight risk assessments are relevant in all aviation settings, Scott emphasises, without exception. In every circumstance, risks need to be weighed up and mitigated.

Scott says the assessment might well be ‘just a piece of paper’, but that’s the point – it’s an easy and effective tool that sets a framework for consistently and effectively assessing and responding to risk in real time

Posted in Flight planning, Preflight and postflight, Pilot performance flying practice and professionalism, General safety;

Posted 19 days ago