Grampaw Pettibone’s Law

July 26, 2013

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.

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

While there are a number of factors involved in this amazing achievement, the culture change began with what the military would call command attention-another phrase meaning 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 what became known as 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 assessed, NATOPS put an end to that. “Well there goes all the fun,” I recall saying to myself, listening as our squadron safety officer and chief NATOPS whip-cracker explained the program in such minute terms that even those of us sporting big watches and little minds got the picture.
Clearly things like flat-hatting and making 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 be for the awareness of command attention, which basically said, “Get with the program or go find another job.”

So, What Does This Have To Do With Your Situation Today?
With indications of increasing construction activity coupled with a shortage of experienced workers, chances are you’re going to be dealing with a fair share of newbies filling critical roles in your work crews…and now’s the time to do something about the situation. What to do? Allow me to suggest that rather than reinventing the safety wheel all by yourself, you might consider grabbing onto the tails of Grampaw Pettibone and the brass hats who set the Navy’s aviation safety program into motion half a century ago.

Its expedition starts and ends with you, because without leadership and the hard-nosed attention to the details upon which safe operations rests, nothing will change. 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 you expect. 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 with 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 subcontractors through the use of contracts stipulating minimum safety program standards.

Call them what you like, Grampaw Pettibone’s tirades or the incessant demand for adherence to well-proven standard procedures, the NATOPS principle has proved 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.