Safety: What Is a Safety Culture?

“We are what we repeatedly do.” Whether Aristotle actually said this or not is irrelevant. But the point is taken; Our actions define us. While we may have the best intentions, if we don't act in accordance with those intentions, they are for naught. This concept applies to everything we approach in life, and especially so in aviation, where as we know, the margins for error are thinner.

Every pilot intends to be a safe, conscientious pilot. Yet every year, pilots do things (act) that is counter to those intentions. Take fuel management as one example. Every year, pilots run out of gas – in the air. Whether through improper flight planning (not accounting for stronger than forecast winds), or incorrect assumptions (thinking the FBO line crew fueled the airplane without confirming), or even laziness (failing to at least visually check the fuel level), pilots' stories of poor fuel management find their way into the NTSB accident database.

It's probably a safe bet to say that none of those pilots intended to cut the engine before landing. But they acted in a manner inconsistent with those intentions. We are what we repeatedly do.

So if we as pilots consistently act in a safe manner, we (club members) start creating an individual set of good practices that then carry over to whatever group (flying club) we're a part of. This is what becomes our, as a group or club, safety culture.

But what is a “safety culture?” That phrase is heard often enough, and with enough vagueness, that no one is really sure what it means, much less how it applies to an individual club member or a club as a whole.

Merriam-Webster defines “culture” as (in part):

  • the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization;
  • the characteristic features of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time;

So for pilots, a safety culture could be a combination of the above: “the set of shared attitudes, goals, and practices of everyday existence toward increased safety in aviation.”

Several phrases in this definition are worth calling out. “Practices of everyday existence.” Back to the fuel management example from earlier, using a dipstick to check your fuel level before every flight instead of just visually looking constitutes an everyday good practice. What can a club member do every day to instill a more safety conscious approach to our flying? We are what we repeatedly do.

The “set of shared attitudes, goals, and practices” is another. While it implies that all members of a group or club share these characteristics, that sharing can also be had between groups. Flying clubs come in all shapes and sizes, from a loosely-formed group of pilots sharing one airplane, to a several thousand member organization with an entire fleet spread across different cities in one state. A one-size-fits-all safety culture is probably not practical, but this is where the “sharing” part of the definition comes into play. Just because a flying club is not structured like yours doesn't mean it can't provide ideas and practices that your club can incorporate.

Sharing aviation safety attitudes and goals led AOPA's Air Safety Institute (ASI) to team up with other industry leading safety education providers to create the Safety Alliance. ASI dedicated a page to topic-related safety information from a variety of sources, which lends itself perfectly to a monthly safety topic for flying clubs to present to its members. You can find the page here:

Lastly, it's worth asking around to other clubs as to what their safety culture constitutes and how they came to be. Many of the larger organizations administer safety surveys to their members. For smaller clubs, simply asking at each meeting what each member thinks of the current safety culture can be enough to start the conversation on improving it (or creating it), and arriving at that set of shared attitudes, goals, and practices.

We all have one goal, one be the safest pilots out there. And it starts with our approach to safety, how we act. Every. Single. Day. And if we stick to that, our safety culture as a group will reflect our intentions. We are what we repeatedly do.


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