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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Twin Sons of Different Mothers

I watched the webcast of the Boeing presentation on their comprehensive solution to the 787 battery system.  People may have different opinions on Boeing’s presentation, but I was particularly impressed with the presentation of Mike Sinnett, Vice President and Chief Project Engineer.  He articulated an approach to an engineering issue that is the same as the method used by effective pilots.   Their approach has been validated by the FAA, the only people outside Boeing with all the available information.  The NTSB is continuing their investigation.

The 787 Dreamliner battery saga is providing many lessons for the air transportation and aerospace engineering industries.  I am not an engineer by training, but I have tremendous respect for the profession. The ability to apply science and manufacturing to an idea and produce a sophisticated product is very impressive.  Their goal is to produce a product that reliably performs to the design criteria.  In the case of the Dreamliner, as well as their other aircraft, the primary design criteria espoused by Boeing is safety.
My education and my training is in the operation of sophisticated machinery, specifically airplanes, in a manner that accomplishes the desired objective(s).  The primary objective is safety for me as well. 

Engineers and pilots have much the same approach to their disciplines.  We both have challenges to deal with; risk, causal factors, unexpected outcomes, testing of assumptions as well as unknowns.  Engineers, however, are afforded a little more of one critical resource than pilots, time.  When a problem occurs, a pilot is always faced with a fixed amount of time to deal with it.  The time can be a short as seconds to as long as hours, but there is always a limit.  Engineers have some time limits as well.  But, for engineers running out of their “fuel”, money, allows them weeks or months instead of minutes and hours.

Pilots and engineers do have the same approach to the obstacles to their desired objective, safety.  It is awareness, avoidance and resolution.  What are issues that might be anticipated?  Can these issues be avoided?  If an issue cannot be avoided, or my avoidance strategy is ineffective, will the outcome still be acceptable? 

When the engineer is asked if he is certain his part will not fail, the answer is no.  When the pilot is asked if he is certain he will be able to land at the scheduled destination, the answer is also no.  That is the case every day throughout the air transportation industry.  With so much uncertainty, how can air transportation have such a remarkable safety record? 

Both the engineer and the pilot have the same mindset.  They ask  “Can something go wrong?”, “Can it be prevented?” and if prevention is ineffective, “Can it be dealt with to a safe conclusion?”.  Successful engineers build redundancy into their systems.  Successful pilots build redundancy into their decision making.  This multifaceted and balanced approach is essential in the dynamic environment that is aviation.  

Failures, mechanical and human, are a part of air transportation.  They are neither desired nor acceptable, but are a reality.  The existence of failure or error is part of any mechanical or human system.  An engineer that believes he can build a part that will never fail is as naive as the pilot that believes he can avoid all errors.  The resolution process of failures or errors indicates a great deal about the effectiveness of an engineer or pilot.  Is it recognized in a timely manner?  Is it trapped before there are negative consequences?  Are the circumstances of the error or failure fully considered for possible future countermeasures?  Are opportunities explored for additional levels of redundancy?

I am sure the aerospace engineering community has a name for their process to achieve a safe aircraft.  For pilots, our process is know as Threat and Error Management.  Identifying and managing (avoiding) threats and errors before they result in a negative impact to safe operations is how we both do it.

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