Safety: Grampaw Pettibone’s Law

Credit: US Naval Aviation Safety Center
“Jumpin’ Jehosaphat! What kind of nincompoop heads off without checking the tires.”

Grampaw Pettibone has been Naval Aviation’s iconic safety overseer since 1943 when the irascible curmudgeon arrived on the scene armed with scorn for the vast collection of boneheaded activities that threatened to deplete the service of its limited supply of airplanes and aviators. By the late 1950s, he garnered the support of enough of the gold-braid brigade to bring his message home with fangs.

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It was at that was point that I began my military flying career, and Naval Aviation’s accident rate stood at 0.7—seven accidents for every 10,000 hours of flight time. Put another way, one accident every 1,500 flight hours, which was not satisfactory from either the pilot or aircraft perspective…particularly the latter where the unit cost was skyrocketing with the advent of jets.

Pilots were having too much fun to care.

Fast forward to this past year, where Naval Aviation’s accident rate stood at 0.0012—slightly more than one accidents per 100,000 flight hours. Not only is this nearly two orders of magnitude better than it was a half century ago, but even though it includes both combat and carrier operations, it was better than that found today in general aviation.

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While there are numerous factors involved in this amazing achievement, the culture change began with what the military would call Command Attention—another word for leadership—but with a thinly veiled fist at its center. That’s what shaped this instrument for change, got it on the road, and drove it to where it is today…better by miles than it was, but still short of the ultimate goal of zero.

The second part of the equation involved putting the entire realm of aircraft operations under the magnifying glass and then codifying what emerged into the Navel Aviation Training and Operating Procedures System (NATOPS). Each aircraft and its operating arena was subjected to minute scrutiny, the effort leading to a set of standard operating procedures that continue to evolve to the present day.

Whereas safety had been more an abstraction than anything to which responsibility (and blame) could be assigned, NATOPS put an end to that, explaining in unequivocal terms, “do it by the book or get another job.”

“Well there goes all the fun,” I recall thinking to myself, listening as our squadron Safety Officer and chief NATOPS whip-cracker explained the program in such unmistakable terms that even those of us sporting big watches and little minds got the picture.

Clearly things like flat-hatting and making simulated strafing runs on sheriff’s vehicles were out of the question, but once we accepted the fact that NATOPS was for real and not about to go away, we found that rather than a bunch of restricting prohibitions it actually helped improve our performance in measurable ways, at the same time allowing us to look forward to many more hours of fun.

Today, NATOPS continues to undergo constant refinement, but the significant point is that it would never have gotten out of the blocks had it not been for the command attention that basically said, “Perhaps you’d be happier running around the mud with a rifle.”

As amply documented, waste operations sport what can be charitably termed a dismal safety record, so given its inherent hazards, it’s high time to do something about the situation. But what to do?

Allow me to suggest that rather than reinventing the safety wheel all by yourself, you might consider grabbing onto the coattails of Grampaw Pettibone and the brass hats who set the Navy’s aviation safety program into high gear half a century ago.

Simply put, it’s an expedition that begins and ends with you, because without leadership and the hard-nosed attention to the details upon which safe operations rests, nothing will change and next year and the next we’ll all still be moaning about how bad the record is. It’s not as if those details are mysterious or difficult to follow. Rather, the development of a safety mindset and the culture that sustains it is an exercise of will…yours to begin with but then your supervisors and through them on down the line until everyone in your organization knows what’s expected. The bottom line here is that if you can’t say, “here’s the way it’s going to be done,” and then kick some serious tail when it isn’t; safety is merely a bunch of platitudes.

For certain things are different for the military than in the civilian world, but you surely have the ability to hold your own feet as well as those of your employees to the fire, and just as firmly, those of your private sector associates through the use of contracts stipulating minimum safety program standards…a safety program put at its simplest, “my way or the highway.”

Call them what you like, through Grampaw Pettibone’s tirades and incessant demands for adherence to well-proven standard procedures, the NATOPS principle has proven itself in day-to-day operations as well as the extreme demands of combat, and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is. MSW_bug_web


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