“It’s a Risky Old World”

I’ve been on a Risk Management refresher course this week, with one of the aims: Teach fundamental risk tools and concepts appropriate to any environment.

I used to be a navigator flying in fighter aircraft (Phantom & Tornado). This was considered to be a high-risk profession, certainly by my life insurance company, who added astonishing premiums to the fee, with the policy exception that I was not covered in a war zone (then covered by MoD). When I first started flying, the fast-jet world was having on average 2 deaths a month due to training accidents, so companies had obviously looked at the risks and charged accordingly.

However, did I view this as a risky job? Well not really, (the ride to work on my motorbike was far riskier). The reason being that there was a robust risk management strategy. The risks had been identified using a variety of methods, with great emphasis being placed on Lessons Learned. These were actually initially defined as Lessons Identified, as until they were implemented and regularly practiced, they were not considered Lessons Learned. The potential impact of the risks were assessed and then prioritised to determine which had the greatest impact/likelihood. This was in both the training and more importantly, the Operational environment. This is where intelligence about the bad-guys equipment, tactics, readiness and capability was analysed. The risks to us were assessed and a strategy/plan developed to minimize casualties. Effective risk response strategies were put in place to prevent, reduce, accept, contain or transfer any impact.

Interestingly, there was an unusual correlation between the people killed in training and their experience level. New crews tended not to get killed too often in training. This was generally because they flew with experienced people, were effectively supervised and mentored. They also had a healthy respect for the dangers of flying and recognised they did not fully understand or have the capability to cope with all situations.

The ‘old-hands’ were also a low-death group, as they had a vast amount of experience, most probably had a few near-misses along the way and had seen how their peers had got killed. They knew not to get involved in certain situations and if they did, how to extract themselves quickly and safely.

The biggest casualty area was the guys in the middle, who thought they knew all the risks and could cope with anything and everything thrown at them. Sadly this was not always true, often with tragic circumstances.

As a final thought, each mission we flew was rated low, medium or high. A Low risk mission meant all come back with no losses, so if it were getting a bit fraught, we’d retire gracefully from the fight or otherwise termed “Run Away bravely !”. Medium risk missions meant a level of attrition was acceptable to get the job done. The final category, such as Cold-war fighter escort missions, was termed High-Risk. This meant a mission of no return, such as escorting bombers into enemy territory until we ran out of fuel, then eject and find your own way home.

So my advice to you, work hard to understand the risks you face on projects, plan accordingly, try not to be a know-it-all and never volunteer for a High Risk Mission.

Have a Great Week


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  1. I like the ‘retire gracefully’ the best!

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