FAA advances UND in its Safety Management System program

You’ve seen them on the boss’s bookshelf: Unwieldy binders stuffed with safety rules and regulations, the kind no one reads until report time. That’s the standard joke.

But at the University of North Dakota John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences (UND Aerospace), safety across all professions and departments is no joke.

“It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture at UND Aerospace,” said Frank Argenziano, since 2005 the school’s assistant director of aviation safety.

That’s why UND Aerospace was asked by the FAA to be part of a pilot program to develop a Safety Management System (SMS) for the school’s “Part 141″ FAA-approved flight training program.

As of January, UND has attained Level 3, the only school in the country at this level, said Argenziano, a rated commercial pilot and FAA-certified aircraft mechanic who’s been at UND since 1974. UND reached Level 1 when it met with the FAA and conducted a workshop on SMS.

“This is next critical step in the FAA’s SMS process; there are four levels in the SMS program,” said Argenziano, recipient of the FAA’s Charles Taylor “Master Mechanic” Award. At the time he got that award in 2012, he also received a plaque from the FAA recognizing “50 Years of Dedicated Service in Aviation Safety.”

120621 Frank Argenziano_Aviation Safety & Security_0151 News Release“SMS is the formal application of best management practices to the business of aviation safety,” said Argenziano. “We have always had a strong safety culture at UND Aerospace, but SMS provides more structure, a better system of checks and balances, and more input on safety concerns by students and staff.”

In June 2013, UND advanced from SMS Level 1, the basic level, to Level 2.

“To advance you have to show that you’re hitting the benchmarks, accomplishing safety-related processes, such as how you document the process and how you follow up on safety reports — in effect, verifying what you say you’re doing,” said Argenziano, who also holds an inspection authorization and has served as an FAA-designated mechanic examiner.

“Earlier this year, the FAA SMS team was up to visit us again, spent a couple of days up here, reviewing our progress, and moved us up to Level 3,” Argenziano said. “It’s a progressive staged process, accomplishing those tasks that the FAA has set in SMS, showing that your operation complies with the federal government’s rigorous SMS program.”

The point of the review is to determine how the organization is using SMS processes; for example, how UND’s processes help to proactively and predictively determine whether there are unnecessary hazards and risk within our organization.

“We gather data, answering questions such as, ‘Are our pilots establishing a stable approach when they’re coming in for a landing?’, ‘Is the airplane un-stabilized?’, ‘Is airspeed way off or the rate of descent too fast?’ — things that can possibly lead to mishaps,” Argenziano said.

How does UND Aerospace find out about those kinds of things?

One way is a safety reporting system. A student, instructor, or any UND employee can send a first-person safety report describing the situation in detail, such as “airspeed way off on a landing approach” or “I could not maintain a stable approach, and I landed hard,’” Argenziano said. “The pilot self-reports, which we encourage — that’s the whole idea. We want our aviators to report these kinds of things because we want to know, instead of them keeping such situations close to the vest and hoping nobody saw it.”

Then UND can determine if it’s getting safety reports about similar occurrences from other people.

“That helps us pick up on, understand and deal with such trends, such as unstable approaches,” Argenziano said. “Then we can go back to our instructors and ask, ‘How are you teaching approaches? Are we standardized? Do we need to do additional training with our instructors.’ Or is there something unique about the aircraft that is causing pilots to mess up their approaches.?”

Basically, SMS is all about getting information and being able to act on it, hopefully before there is a mishap.

“The whole idea of our safety reporting system is to encourage self-reporting, because we emphasize that this isn’t a punitive process — we’re not going to rake you over the coals,” he said. “In fact, we’re going to tell you that we appreciate your letting us know. It’s not about consequences, it’s about continuous improvement. To go from Level 2 to Level 3, we had to show the FAA that we implemented such a reporting system and, just as important, that people are using it.”

Getting to SMS Level 3 is a big deal for UND Aerospace, specifically, and more generally for all aviation training facilities.

“As of now, there are only a handful of other Part 141 schools working on an SMS, and they’re all still at Level 1, as far as I know; we’re on track to achieve Level 4 this year,” Argenziano said. “FAA said that generally it takes four to six years to achieve Level 4. We are well within that timeframe.”

“We’ve been able to move along quickly, largely because of our historically strong safety culture and our deep commitment to safety,” Argenziano said. “UND already has many aspects required under the FAA SMS in place. If your organization has good operating practices in place, you are probably 80% the way there before you even start developing an SMS program.”

“SMS isn’t just something that we say we have that’s on the shelf,” he concluded. “We’re actually making use of it daily.”

For more information: UND.edu

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