I have posted this short piece below many years ago and after a few conversations with traders recently I thought it was time to post it again. I have added my emphasis to the final sentence.
But, no matter what you do, it will never be perfectly, 100% risk-free to fly. Or to drive, or to walk, or to do anything. One of our pilots here died when he waited too long to eject from a spinning aircraft. He was wrong; he should have jumped out earlier.
He failed in his duty, IMO.
One of our engineers was walking his dog when a car driven by a kid jumped the curb and hit him. Only his leg was broken. But he walks his dog again, now. Who know better than him the danger?
There’s no way to make life perfectly safe; you can’t get out of it alive.
You can’t even predict every danger. How can you guard against a hazard you can’t even conceive of?
I agree that the days of “kick the tires and light the fires” are gone, but insisting on perfect safety is the single most reliable way of killing an aerospace project.
I’ve been on both sides of the FRR (Flight Readiness Review) process for a number of aeronautical projects. Experienced engineers try to think of everything that can go wrong. But airplanes can still surprise the best team.
I’ve had to sign a form, certifying that to the best of my knowledge everything that we’re going to do on a flight is safe. I’ve never seriously asked myself “What will I say to the AIB (Accident Investigation Board)” because once one starts on that, the form will never be signed, the flight will never be flown, and the research will never be done.
But I have asked myself “Have I told everybody exactly what we’re going to do and what the known risks are and are we agreed that these risks are acceptable” and when I can answer that “yes” I sign the form. That also answers the question of what I’d say to the AIB.
I’m not talking about abstract theories here, I’m talking about test pilots that I’ve known for decades. Believe me, I know exactly what the consequences of a mistake on my part could mean. The reminders are all around me: Edwards AFB–killed in the XB-49, Lilly Ave–first NASA pilot killed at what’s now Dryden, Love Rd–I saw Mike’s burning F-4 auger into the lake bed, with him in it. But once I’ve done my best, like everybody else on the team, it’s time to go fly the airplane.
Insisting on perfect safety is for people who don’t have the balls to live in the real world.Mary Shafer, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA SR-71 Flying Qualities Lead Engineer.