July 03, 2012

Safety First

From the Summer 2012 issue of Universitas

By John Gilmore

When many of us make a mistake at work, fixing it can be as simple as tapping the delete key. But one mistake by a pilot or doctor can have disastrous consequences.

Whether it’s aviation, health care, oil drilling or construction, installing system-wide, effective safety programs is crucial to the business success of companies operating in high-consequence industries. A single employee error can trigger a human tragedy and have severe financial ramifications on companies already operating with razor-thin profit margins.

In 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded a $2.25 million grant to Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology to form the Center for Aviation Safety Research (CASR). The center’s six full-time staff members, faculty and student researchers are housed in the department of aviation science, where they pursue research on sustainable safety initiatives for air transportation and other high-consequence industries. In 2009, the FAA awarded another $2 million to SLU to focus on “next generation” aviation workforce needs — specifically aviation and aerospace maintenance engineering curricula. This brought the total center funding to $4.25 million.

Lercel and Patankar
Lercel (left) and Patankar in the air traffic control lab.


Dr. Manoj Patankar (Parks ’92) has been leading aviation safety research since the 1990s. He spearheaded Parks College’s application for this FAA research grant and serves as CASR’s executive director and principal investigator.

Growing up in Mumbai, India, Patankar — who also is the vice president of academic affairs at SLU and has been the dean of Parks College — lived in the shadow of one of the world’s busiest airports.

“I come from an airline family,” said Patankar, whose father worked for Air India. “Aviation and international travel have always been close to me. Research on why people in the aviation industry make mistakes and how we can help organizations reduce these mistakes has always fascinated me.”

One of Patankar’s first moves as CASR’s executive director was to hire Damon Lercel as program director. Before Patankar came to SLU to teach in 2002, he had been a faculty member at San Jose State University, where Lercel had been one of his aviation students. The two stayed in touch and, coincidentally, both landed in St. Louis.

“Damon has the perfect combination of aviation experience and expertise required to lead the program,” Patankar said.

Lercel, who has spent his career in the aviation industry with Midcoast Aviation and Saberliner Corp., also has his MBA and will complete his doctorate in aviation at Parks College in 2013. He will become one of the first graduates of the college’s aviation doctoral program, which is one of only two in the country.

Like Patankar, Lercel has jet fuel running through his veins. His uncle was a pilot for Ozark Airlines before moving into corporate aviation. His father was an aviation student at Parks College in the early 1960s until a medical exam revealed that he was colorblind and thus could not be a pilot.

“I have always had the aviation bug,” said Lercel, who earned his private pilot certificate when he was 20 and also has an airframe and powerplant certificate from the FAA that allows him to perform aircraft maintenance and repairs. “It’s so exciting to see the FAA using the research we are doing to develop strategies and regulations around safety.”


Funded through 2014, the center’s interdisciplinary aviation safety research is unique among U.S. universities. With the FAA as its primary customer, CASR partners with organizations including NASA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Patient Safety Foundation, the Chemical Safety Board, more than 20 airlines and repair stations, and several hospitals. Two advisory groups — an internal group from SLU and an external group made up of FAA personnel and other safety experts — provide strategic guidance.

“We are doing bidirectional research,” Patankar said. “We take what we learn in the flight safety domain and share those best practices with high-consequence industries. Then we apply their safety research to aviation.”

Safety is intertwined with issues related to human behavior, organizational development and business performance. This encourages SLU faculty and students from business, humanities, law, medicine, nursing, public health and social sciences to join their aviation- and engineering-focused colleagues in the center’s research.

School of Law participants study the legal aspects of safety laws and reforms. John Cook School of Business participants engage in research on the business benefits of effective safety programs. The center will collaborate with the School of Medicine on research focused on improving patient safety at hospitals where SLUCare physicians work.


The CASR has seven research priorities:

1 |  Safety Management Systems: Business Benefits, Implementation and Development Strategies

Unlike investing in a new technology or large piece of equipment, which should come with an estimated return on investment, the payoff for investing in safety typically can be found in what doesn’t happen.

Making a business case for investing in safety can be tricky.

CASR’s researchers work with airlines, repair stations, regulators and manufacturers to develop safety investment analysis models.

“We help managers develop financial models and payback analyses on safety investments,” Lercel said. “They can show their leadership teams the financial benefits of investing in safety.”

“If their safety programs are effective, they save money,” Patankar added. “If they aren’t, they cost money.”

2 |  Safety Culture

CASR works with airlines worldwide to provide ongoing safety culture assessments and suggestions for improvement. For an organization to build an effective safety management system, it needs to develop a safety culture.

“People need to feel like they can tell you about errors they made or potential hazards they see without feeling like there will be unjust repercussions,” Lercel said. “A scapegoat approach is evidence of a blame culture. A reporting culture encourages employees to voluntarily disclose errors so systemic problems can be fixed. A just culture goes a step further and distinguishes between honest mistakes and intentional disregard for safety.”

3 |  Maintenance Aviation Safety Action Programs

With its Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), the FAA is encouraging air carriers and repair station employees to voluntarily report incidents that could be precursors to accidents.

CASR has been instrumental in developing the FAA Maintenance ASAP reporting system that enables airline employees to report safety-related data, potential hazards and errors. Employees are assured that the information will be kept confidential and that they will be treated justly.

“This type of data allows the FAA to be proactive in addressing issues before they lead to accidents,” Lercel said.

CASR has used the knowledge gained from ASAP to help organizations in other high-consequence industries develop effective voluntary reporting systems.

Taurus aircraft
The Taurus, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

4 |  Next-Generation Safety Assessment and Lab

One of the FAA’s goals is to implement next-generation aviation technology.

In August, SLU will take delivery of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) purchased from Honolulu-based Williams Aerospace, along with a full-crew UAV simulator acquired from Simlat Ltd.

Called the Taurus, this UAV has a 10-foot wingspan with a maximum takeoff weight of 55 pounds and can carry sensor payloads up to 24 pounds.

“It is a sophisticated aircraft, without a pilot, that we can control from the ground,” Lercel said. “Our faculty and students will fly it in the military airspace around Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.”

CASR is working with the FAA to develop processes and technology to prepare for the day when these UAVs can be integrated into the national airspace system.

“UAVs can stay aloft for long periods of time and can be much more cost effective for activities like search and rescue efforts, terrain mapping, wildlife tracking and observation, border patrol, or bridge and building inspections,” Lercel said.

When a catastrophic tornado struck Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, for example, the UAV could have been transported to Joplin and immediately put into the air without the need for an airport, runway or control tower. The bird’s-eye view from the UAV would have provided an immediate damage assessment to help focus the rescue efforts.

SLU already has a research lab equipped with video screens, radio communications and radar that simulates an air traffic control tower.

The new UAV simulator will integrate into the existing air traffic control simulator to create environments in which UAVs share airspace with manned aircraft.

5 |  Incident Investigation

A typical flight may include unreported threats, errors and undesired aircraft states that the flight crew handles without incident.

Researchers can study these undocumented incidents by conducting Line Operation Safety Audits (LOSAs) in which they analyze flight data.

CASR has equipped some aircraft in the Parks training fleet with flight data recorders, voice recorders and cameras in the cockpit. As part of a current general aviation LOSA research project, they record these flights and the activities of instructors and students so they can study their actions and look for ways to improve.

Multi-Risk Pyramid
CASR researchers are analyzing the use of a multi-level pyramid model to develop organizational risk assessment tools.

6 |  Multi-Risk Analysis

How can organizations address multiple, often competing, safety risks in a way that makes the most business sense?

Picture a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the unreported errors that employees made but corrected. Next are the hazardous conditions or near misses, followed by actual incidents that may have caused minor damage. At the top of the pyramid is an accident resulting in major damage, personal injury or death.

The key to reducing the number of incidents and accidents at the top of the pyramid is to correct the errors at the bottom.

“We can develop a model that relates mathematically to those different layers of the pyramid so organizations can assess and reduce risk,” Lercel said. “The insurance industry is very interested in our research.”

7 |  Next-Generation Maintenance and Engineering

CASR is preparing for an American airspace of the future that is populated with both manned and unmanned vehicles.

The five-year partnership between SLU and Williams Aerospace related to the UAV purchase includes internship opportunities for Parks College aviation and engineering students to participate in unmanned aircraft research and operations at Williams’ Honolulu facilities.

“We will use the UAV to enhance our curriculum and train our next generation of pilots, mechanics and engineers,” Patankar said.


As CASR builds its body of knowledge, it will have more opportunities to apply it to other high-consequence industries. This will broaden its funding model and revenue opportunities.

The center’s research feeds into the undergraduate and graduate curricula, ensuring that it stays on the leading edge of safety research.

“When students come to SLU, they receive the latest and greatest curriculum,” Patankar said. “Based on our industry partnerships, students can acquire substantial experience.”

The center also is making contributions in the area of safety ethics.

“Ethical decision-making is a SLU hallmark,” Patankar noted. “We are looking at the individual, social and financial aspects of ethical decision-making related to safety.”

CASR publishes its research results in the International Journal of Safety Across High-Consequence Industries. Patankar, who has written more than 50 safety-related publications, including four books, recently shared some of the center’s research in a book from Ashgate Publishing that he co-authored with a group including Dr. Edward Sabin (A&S ’71, Grad ’76, ’82), a faculty member in SLU’s department of psychology, titled, Safety Culture: Building and Sustaining a Cultural Change in Aviation and Health Care.

“Safety research transcends disciplinary boundaries to impact every discipline and organization,” Patankar said. “We are possibly the only university in the country to have engineering, aviation, medicine, nursing, public health, business, law, humanities and social sciences — all the disciplines that could contribute as well as benefit from safety research. Having all these disciplines available on SLU’s campus allows us to pull them together to collaborate on research. It’s very exciting.”

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