Part 1 - Paul Kissmann Discusses Safety Culture In The World Of High Performance Aviation

TK: Hello folks and welcome to the Dicerra Podcast. I’m Theon te Koeti, CEO and founder of Dicerra. On the Dicerra podcast we talk about human performance in aviation and healthcare. Today we’re downtown Ottawa. This is the Between Two Ferns edition, I’m here with Paul Kissman, who’s one of the most experienced pilots in Canada. Has a really impressive resume, an ex fighter pilot with the Canadian Forces flew F5s and F18s. Experimental test pilot trained with Empire and who became the Chief Test Pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force and later became the Chief Test Pilot for the National Research Council of Canada. Also the Chief Pilot for Vintage Wings Canada and is now perhaps slightly different pace of operations flying wide body A330 for Air Canada, and is also the lead aviation advisor for Dicerra. So we’re super lucky to have you both on the show and with Dicerra. Paul, why don’t you begin by telling us a little bit about how you got here?

PAUL: Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation, both to participate with Dicerra, and also this podcast. I’ve been super fortunate in my career, you know, I started out, have to give a shout out to the Air Cadets, started out there. You know, the 16 year old kid flying gliders getting my glider pilot licence before I even had a driver’s licence. And it really paved the way for me into military aviation, it gives you a taste of the culture. You know, and it also gives you a bit of a resume that the military can look at and say, yeah, this kid might be something one day. And so I sure owe a lot to that, that process. And I was fortunate throughout, you know, my back in the day, you had to have 20/20 uncorrected vision. There were all kinds of stumbling blocks that you had no control over. That, now some things are more lenient, and you could get by with classes or laser surgery, but we couldn’t back in the day. So I also am thankful for my good fortune, you know, whether it’s in health or in getting through all the hurdles that there were to getting into the military and, and for example, you know, I got straight on to fighters, many people wanted fighters. You know, when I started my course, we had 34 people on my course in Moose Jaw that wanted fighters out of 36 when we started and at the end we got four slots. So I was fortunate to be one of those four and that just set me up through out. I just managed to get through that and in the Test Pilot School and it’s just been one good fortune and enjoyable experience after another.

TK: That’s awesome. And was that the tutor back then for phase two? Moose Jaw? 

PAUL: Absolutely. Yeah, we went Musketeer phase one, which is a small low wing airplane, 180 horsepower, fixed gear. And then right on the tutor jet, which you can imagine was quite a big step up. I can still remember the first takeoff and the tutor. It was like this magical hand was pushing you mysteriously from somewhere because it was so quiet. You know, every airplane I’d flown before had an engine in front of me with a propeller with the vibration and the noise associated. Now you get into this magical jet. And the only thing that you heard was the air conditioning system blowing air. And the jets all behind you and the faster you go, the less you hear it. Yeah, I can. I will never forget that first takeoff.

TK: And then F5s with 419. 

PAUL: Yes. 

TK: F18s and then of course a range of aircraft with test pilot school including the F14D. 

PAUL: You bet. 

TK: So what’s the most interesting aircraft in your logbook?

PAUL: You know, people always ask you normally ask me what my favourite airplane is. And I always say the one that I’m sitting in, you know, I have a broad love for aviation that goes from small piston aircraft still to this day, right up through the airline world that I’m flying in with Air Canada. But I think the one that ties a bow the best on my whole career is the F4. I was an eight year old boy at an airshow in Hamilton. And I think it was Michigan International Guard that flew some F4s by in a fly past. And my parents happened to take me to an airshow and I looked up and said “I think I want to do that.” And, and I didn’t waver from that, you know my passion for maths and sciences was a good fit to that. And working hard in school obviously. And it just kept progressing along that I didn’t take my eye off that ball from eight years old and then ironically, on test pilot school with the empire in England in 1996. At the end of the course our culminating exercise is to fully assess an aircraft that we haven’t flown before. So we got assigned the F14 Super Tomcat which was in Point Magoo in California. The side hustle was that they had F4s that they used as target aircraft for live missile shots. But they were also equipped to be flown so they flew them once in a while until he actually participated in a live fire exercise and probably didn’t come back. But I actually got to fly the F4 out of the front seat with a poor, trusting soul in the back who had no stick, no nothing. No simulator, no, just here’s the book, here’s some guidance and somebody that was, you know, talking to me at various pitches of voice from behind, you know, to me to make sure that we got things going in the right way. But it was really was the ultimate, you know, bookend on a career, because that’s what got me going in my vision in the first place. And then of course, I finished Test Pilot School by flying that aircraft. 

TK: That’s amazing. 

PAUL: And I’ll put a side story to that one too, because it was so unique, in my experience. Because we’re going to talk about safety and various safety cultures. So these aircraft are obviously expendable, because they’re going to be shot down. But we’re not. So you know, there’s a certain interest that we do things right. But as we’re doing a check of the flap system, before we got out of the parking to get going flying, there was a leading edge flap that was hanging up, and it just wasn’t deploying properly. So he calls over one of the maintenance technicians that comes over with these big bolt cutters. And he cuts a triangular chunk out of the leading edge flat, and then they move the flaps they work, he goes good to go. So, you know, speaking of safety culture, you know, that wouldn’t fly, pardon the pun, anywhere else. But in that environment in that day in age and with that aircraft. That was okay.

TK: You couldn’t do that with a Fifth Gen fighter.

PAUL: No, you wouldn’t. I think the F35 boys would have a heart attack.

TK: That’s wild. Well, since we’re, we’re talking about safety culture, then let’s, let’s get cracking and and maybe we can jump into the first question with how is your experience as a fighter pilot and test pilot shaped your perspective on aviation safety.

PAUL: It’s been an evolution sort of like my career. And I was trying to find a way to frame this well, because I’ve gone from fighter aviation and now into high end commercial aviation. And they’re very, very different. And even if you do test flying or research flying in there, which I’ve also had a chance to do, every one of these types of flying has a culture and they have a mission necessity, you know, an urgency of various urgencies, you know. If you’re in the fighter world, not unlike cutting a chunk out of your flap and an F4. But if you’re in the fighter world, there is a known portion of this profession, that is we might get shot down, or actually my role very much could be to go shoot somebody else down in an aircraft. So the safety piece is morphed just a little bit because of the risks of the mission that you’re doing in war, whether you get shot down by a surface to air missile, or by some other aircraft or the the risks that you take on. So the context of the mission that you’re doing, really frames the safety culture, and you couldn’t possibly, you know, overlay an airline safety culture on a fighter aviation mission, because it’s just so different. And the risks are inherently so much higher, doesn’t make safety less important. But it just makes how you apply it different. And that’s really what I learned going through. I mean, I started, you can tell by the gray hair that I started back in pencil and paper, you know, we did flight safety. Initially, it was new. This was, I mean, in the 50s. You know, I think it was 1954 or 56, where Canada in the military lost the most aircraft. In one year in the history of the peacetime Air Force. It was over 200 aircraft. That finally morphed as flight safety became something we even talked about, you know, and the culture of the Air Force changed. To the point when I started, we were doing flight safety reporting when it was happening with pencil and paper. And if you were next door on a squadron, you had no idea what I wrote down, unless I took my pencil and paper afterwards over to you and said, “Hey, have a look at this.” So it was very challenging early on, I think to do flight safety well across even one type of organization, or one community. And then luckily, we of course, came on with computers. So now we could actually put things into a database of some sort that people can search, but it was normally restricted to that computer. And eventually we linked them and it got linked to that squadron. And then we got the internet and I became, you know, broader. And we started to hear about things that happen in different communities, different air forces in different countries. So it’s been a huge evolution in flight safety.

TK: Ironically, that’s the big part of the motivation for Dicerra and healthcare is to bring this model to healthcare looking in from the outside we can see it is in terms of reporting culture. You know, it’s back in time. Many places still use pen and paper, my wife is an RN, and she’s worked in hospitals that are pen and paper reporting. So they go into a filing cabinet. Obviously, no other hospitals are ever gonna see that.

PAUL: Right.

TK: And some of the electronic systems via PDF are siloed within that hospital, and the hospital across the street can’t see them. So, I mean, aviation wasn’t always that safe. Like you said, 200 aircraft, 200 plus aircraft in one year. To now the safest industry in the world. We could probably get there in healthcare as well, by adopting a similar mentality. But to go back to what you’re saying about subcultures. So you know, for non aviators listening in, they might have thought that aviation safety is aviation safety, and it would be the same in the airlines as in the military, but obviously, you just brought up it’s not the case. But even within the military, the difference between the subculture of Fighters versus Air Mobility versus Tactical Helicopter operations. And then, within fighters, the difference perhaps between two different squadrons, it can be quite significant. So have you found in your career that there were specific cultures that changed the way individuals made decisions or approached safety?

PAUL: I think cultures are at the heart of it. Whether it’s a reporting culture, when we’re talking safety, you know, I lived through the era where people were still very reluctant to report as I think you’re probably finding in health care, because there’s a litigious environment potentially, or a fear of retribution for what you’ve written down. And that’s how it was when I started that, that things would happen, and people would hush it up, because, boy, if we admit this, we’re gonna end up losing our wings, as we called it in the military. And it had to get to the point where people were confident in the complete system, the operating inside of that the culture would allow them to report something, and it was for the betterment of everyone. And it wasn’t in order to punish them. Now, you couldn’t go out and rage around and do something completely against the rules and then hide behind the flight safety system. That’s not the idea. But it was more for, you know, stuff happens. And it’s not always what you intended. We all make mistakes. It’s how we learn from those mistakes that we advance a culture. And that reporting portion is what’s so key in advancing that if you can’t report confidently, get the information out and share it, it’s really hard for us to learn lessons and improve how we operate. And again, the mission taints that because sometimes you accept more risk, because of the mission, you can’t you can’t expect that someone going into a war zone with a fighter jet is taking on the same kind of risk as a Airbus pilot flying passengers across the Atlantic, it’s just not the same ballgame, nor should it ever be.

TK: When you talk about risk to, in test aviation, you might have to accept a mitigated high risk, or unmitigated high. Because you’re testing something for the first time and there’s only so much you can do. But you would try and make the test conditions as standardised as possible, mitigate the risks and whatever way that you possibly can. And I imagined it’s the same in the fighter environment in a combat context. It’s just there’s only so so far that you can mitigate those risks before you have to accept them in order to get the mission completed.

PAUL: Yeah, and you’re bringing up a very interesting topic overall, which is risk analysis and mitigation. And I thought about this a little bit before we talked today. And, there’s an interesting difference between flight test and the other communities. I think flight tests tend to be more forward looking. Because we were planning to test something. We get engineers to look at what we’re testing, aerodynamicists and we get all this information ahead of time before we ever dip our toe into the let’s take it flying and see how she goes. We make a build up approach, we sort of mitigate risk or to reduce risk. You know, if we’re trying to go out to a certain maximum airspeed with a new weapon on board the airplane and we don’t know how the aircraft is going to react, well, we’re not going to go out there. We’re going to plan to go out slowly, measure the response of the aircraft, maybe do multiple flights. And so it creates a very different environment now in flight tests and what it used to be. I mean, flight tests first started, wow, you know, the Exploration Program, a Chuck Yeager gang. I mean, there was some serious big kahunas going on out there with what they did, you know, the sound barrier, all these things we had no idea about. So now in test aviation, I consider it to be very forward looking. Whereas in, you know, in the fighter aviation world, it is forward looking in terms of threats, but your risk mitigations in planning a mission are surrounded by what are the threats that we’re going to encounter, you know, be it surface to air missile systems, the other air force that’s we’re working on it working against, obviously, and them trying to shoot us down on what are their defences, it’s more oriented in that direction, whereas the actual portion of flying the aircraft, and how you operate, it is somewhat taken for granted. And isn’t that much discussed in a safety context, it’s more the stuff outside of us that you talk about more.

TK: It’s expected that you know your procedures called. Following the procedures within the manufacturer’s guidelines, both for the weapon system and the aircraft itself, you’re going to be safe, and then you have all of the additional, you know, the enemy gets a vote. So you have your threat, brief, and then kind of merged the two together. I’m curious to know, if you’ve encountered at a time where the administrative side of risk management has gone too far in the other direction, and what I mean by that is, you know, you have so many layers of the cheese. And you want to mitigate risks so that the little holes don’t line up. But there comes a certain point where there’s so many layers, that adding an additional layer doesn’t really increase safety, but it does decrease efficiency.

PAUL: Yeah, I mean, absolutely, I’ve experienced that at various points in my career, some more recent, and some more in the distant past. You’re gonna always, you know, have time, against safety, against efficiency and cost, if you will, in your programs of whatever you’re trying to do. I think that’s probably a pretty common triangle to talk about. You want it fast and cheap? Well it’s not going to be safe. You want it safe and cheap? Well it’s not to be fast, you know, you can do this triangle. And it’s followed me around my career. But one time where we almost got paralyzed by that whole process, and it was a tough position to be in. But the original ejection seat that was in the tutor aircraft of the snowbirds fly, they had found a significant flaw with that, and this is going back into the early 90s. But the test aircraft that we were using to test had the exact same seat and the same parachute. So we wanted to test to help improve this seat on behalf of the snowbirds. But we had to fly a seat that was in test. And so, we had to do a lot of really good convincing of the higher headquarters staff. And I can still remember the colonel that we talked to in Winnipeg and finally convinced. It came down really to a one on one meeting, I was, you know, sat down with him and said, “Sir, you just got to trust us. Like, we can do this. It’s going to take us a year. We know how to do it, we’re gonna do it as safely as we possibly can, but just trust that we can do this.” And to his credit, you know, I don’t know that would happen today. But back then it did. You know, the headquarter staff, I think, had more power at a lower level and more responsibility, and we’re able to take it on. And we were able to succeed with that project. But that was one of those ones where you’re caught in a corner, and then you just can’t mitigate that away apart from taking on some risk, or just stop and you’re done, which is not the answer either.

TK: So that leads nicely into maybe the next question with a technology lean to it. From your perspective, how has technology evolved to contribute to improved safety measures in aviation?

PAUL: Yeah, I alluded to a little bit earlier there. There’s a number of different technologies we can talk about but one is certainly the enabling of information to be shared by computer and internet. I mean, the fact that you at least have the silos kind of linked between, you know, whether it’s European Aviation or fighter aviation somewhere or commercial aviation. You know, we have databases now that are out there, although often isolated, but they’re still out there at least, that if you go looking for information, you probably can find it. So the computer and the Internet has been a huge enabler, to trying to make sure that we learn from each other. You know, the first thing we want to do is not create the same mistake again and again and again, because we didn’t learn from somebody else’s misfortune. So that’s one key piece. And the other one I alluded to is just the incredible capabilities of aircraft design now, from an engineering perspective, you know, when we bring an aircraft out now, we will have flown a lot of time in a simulator before we ever get into the aircraft that was involved with the C series, which is now the A220 flight test program a little bit after the first flights happened, but we worked hard on the fly by wire flight control system, and tuning how the pilot would fly the aircraft. And it was the same in the airplane as it was in the simulator. So when you got into that airplane, you weren’t surprised, you were just validating what we thought we knew. And by and large, it was either equal or better than what we expected. And that follows through, you know, into what we’ll talk about, perhaps, later, but that’s the, you know, the benefit of simulation to safety. You know, in the airline world, you will get your type rating on an aircraft, without stepping into the actual aircraft, the first time that you fly the airplane, you’ll have a training person with you. But the reality is, there are passengers on board and you have not yet done a takeoff or landing in a real aircraft and you will with passengers on board, that’ll be the first time you do it. And it’s totally safe. The simulators are designed for that. The level of equivalence between the simulator and the aircraft is so high, that it’s transparent. The fact that the cockpit door is closed, there’s somebody back there or not somebody back there and it’s a simulator to the pilot is really transparent. So you cannot do anything but applaud the role of simulation in advancing safety.

TK: Yeah we’re definitely going to circle back and pull more of the thread of the simulation topic. I’ve heard it said many times that aviation is as safe as it is now because of the technological advances. But there is a component of that that rests upon the reporting culture as well, because the technology doesn’t develop in a vacuum, it has to be informed by reports from the hangar floor from the text from the flight deck and from everywhere else. And usually those developments have come from an incident there, you know, the procedures are written in one. And, you know, we probably all know now that the instances of mechanical failure in aviation are increasingly small, right? It used to be a significant chunk of the pie with pilot error, making up a small sliver, but now as the technological side engineering side has become safer and safer, the pilot error portion is comparatively much larger and its contribution to accidents. 

PAUL: Absolutely.

TK: So how important then, is effective reporting culture when it’s the human element. Now, that comprises the majority of adverse incidents, whether it’s a crash or just an incident?


PAUL: Well, I think that’s where it becomes super important. And that’s where you come back to your culture of your organisation. Because what we’re doing by reporting is pointing our fingers at ourselves, you know, if the human in the loop is the weakest link, which I think you’re right, in the majority of the aviation constructs that we fly in now, that is the case, the human is the weakest link. So if we have a good strong reporting culture, that means that human had to be willing to say, “Hey, this is on me, I made a mistake. This is what happened. This is how this mistake came about.” And it’s rarely a singular thing. Right? If you look at aviation accidents, it is reasons model, right? It’s the Swiss cheese, with the holes lining up of multiple elements that came together at the wrong time and the wrong way to cause a serious incident or accident. But underlying that is that ability to report, to not fear retribution for reporting and to be willing in your culture, to point your finger at yourself and say, “Hey, this is on me. We screwed this up. And this is how we screwed it up. And this is what happened.” And then it allows the system to dig deeper into it because, you know, most often unaware to the pilot, there’s probably other layers there that we don’t even know because we’re only one layer. And that’s where you know, that investigative portion of the reporting goes on. And you can really dismantle how that incident or accident happened. And then we can populate the database and hopefully other people will learn from it.

TK: What advice would you give aspiring pilots regarding cultivating the right mentality for peak performance? And it actually goes beyond pilots because what you’re describing when you have to feel comfortable enough coming forward to share something that didn’t go well. And a portion that might be your fault. Or it could be the result of many, many conditions that have led to that, that point. That mentality and the humility to come forward and share it with a group of people transcends just aviation and healthcare. So great sports people, many, many other industries will benefit from having people at their best confess to things that didn’t go well so that it can be the rising tide that lifts all ships. So what advice would you give to people for habits they can slowly build over time to improve their performance?

PAUL: I think there’s a few key ones that hold true in aviation or anywhere else. And that is never stop learning. You know, never feel like you’ve arrived and you’re done. And you’re the woman or the man, you know, you’re not, nobody is. If you can always push yourself to learn more, to improve yourself at what you’re doing. To not accept that last mission as being the best one you’re ever going to fly. To this day, when I go even on the simplest of flights, being with Air Canada or elsewhere, there’s always something that didn’t go the way I wanted, be it a verbal communication that wasn’t quite correct. Or, you know, a handling of the aircraft or whatever, you know, be critical of yourself, and always strive to improve. And within that, keep learning. You know, don’t sit idle ever on your laurels.

TK: Never miss an opportunity to embarrass yourself. 

PAUL: Those come naturally.

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Part 2 – Paul Kissmann Discusses Safety Culture In The World Of High Performance Aviation

Paul Kissmann, Dicerra's Lead Aviation Advisor, is a former fighter pilot, Commanding Officer, Chief Test Pilot for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the National Research Council, Chief Pilot for Vintage Wings Canada and a wide-body airline pilot for Air Canada. He speaks about lessons learned from high performance cultures within different aviation organizations and their different approaches to safety and human performance.

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Part 2 – Paul Kissmann Discusses Safety Culture In The World Of High Performance Aviation

Paul Kissmann, Dicerra's Lead Aviation Advisor, is a former fighter pilot, Commanding Officer, Chief Test Pilot for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the National Research Council, Chief Pilot for...