Safety Lessons from Racing

It seems some part of my brain is always searching for safety lessons. I’m a Formula 1 racing fan and I often see opportunities to transfer lessons from the racing world into aviation. It sounds like a stretch at first. F1 seems to be a sport based on risk and danger. After all, these guys go fast – really fast. The cars can exceed 200 miles per hour though average race speeds are typically lower. Some of the drivers are known for having self-confidence to the extreme (read: egos). And they compete in just about any weather condition (compared to some other racing series in which delays are called if it’s raining in the same county). So F1 is fast, is often powered by ego, and continues in almost any weather. (I hope by now you see the comparison between F1 and aviation is not that much of a stretch.)

Here are just a couple of examples of safety lessons from racing:

Know when to call it a day.

In late June 2013, the British Grand Prix was held in Silverstone. Driver Sergio Perez suffered two tire explosions in one weekend: one during the final practice of the weekend and one during the actual race. The team had the option to replace the tire and continue with the race on new tires but chose to retire from the race. Two other tire failures occurred during that race. Drivers and their teams no longer trusted the particular tire being used that week. Perez and his team knew when to call it a day. Following the Silverstone race, drivers threatened to boycott the next race if Pirelli, the tire manufacturer, and the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA), the governing authority of F1, didn’t correct the tire issues.

Know your own limits and don’t exceed them.

Have you seen the movie “Rush” yet? If not, you might want to skip the next 2 paragraphs unless you are familiar with the true story “Rush” depicts. “Rush” tells the story of the classic F1 rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the 1970s. Lauda was known for being a studious sort of driver, polite but distant, while Hunt was a ladies man who seemed to take a only a short break in the party to race.

In the 1970s F1 safety practices, including equipment, fire suits, and so on, weren’t nearly as sophisticated as they are today. Lauda even said early on in the movie that there was a 1 in 5 chance of dying while racing. His acceptable level of risk was 20% and not a bit more. Heavy rain was falling at the German Grand Prix in 1976 and Lauda believed that increased the risk of the race significantly. He urged the FIA to postpone the race and asked other drivers to boycott with him. Hunt, the likable, more social driver, convinced the other drivers to drive the race as planned. The results were devastating. Lauda crashed early in the race and his car burst into flames. He suffered terrible burns to his head and face and toxic fume burns to his lungs. He survived the ordeal and managed to continue to race in the 1976 season.

The story climaxes at the Japanese Grand Prix where rain was falling heavy again. Lauda started the race but pulled into the pit box and retired from the race in the second lap. The decision cost him the championship for the year as Hunt pulled ahead by 1 point by finishing the race in miserable conditions. Hollywood has us believe Lauda retired from the race because the risk from the rain outweighed the possible reward. There’s some speculation he withdrew from the race because of vision issues caused by the German Grand Prix accident, but in any case, he apparently determined the risk was simply too great to continue racing in those conditions.

Whether you know the story or not, go see “Rush”. I was on the edge of my seat for half of the movie even though I knew what was going to happen and when.

(By the way, Lauda is now a fellow aviation professional. He is a commercial pilot and has founded two airlines in Europe.)

These lessons transfer pretty clearly to our world of business aviation. If you have multiple mechanical failures of the same critical component, do you ground the airplane until a cause is found and the issue is resolved? Or do you keep flying and hope the next failure doesn’t result in catastrophe? If the weather or other conditions are too dangerous, do the pilots have a “drivers meeting” to determine whether to continue? Can one pilot make the no-go call or does the whole crew have to agree? Do you, as a manager, pilot, mechanic, or support personnel, have a personal acceptable level of risk and do you stick to it?

There is one huge difference between F1 and aviation: responsibility. In F1, the participants are all skilled drivers and they knowingly accept the risks of the race. In our industry, our passengers expect us to assess risk and establish a low acceptable level. They expect us to be professionals.

I hope to see you in Las Vegas next week at the NBAA convention!

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