CASA’s new Director of Aviation Safety, Mark Skidmore, knows exactly when his passion for aviation was ignited: 20 July 1969. ‘I saw man landing on the moon, and I decided I wanted to be an astronaut,’ he said. ‘The only problem was there were no Australian astronauts at the time.’ A career flying aircraft was a natural solution, and since his ex-merchant mariner father dissuaded him from his first thought of joining the navy to fly, asking ‘Why join the navy when the air force has more aircraft?’, he ‘ended up in the air force’.
Skidmore is equally unequivocal as to why he put up his hand to be the head of CASA. ‘I saw it as an opportunity to be part of an organisation that is critical for the safety of aviation in Australia.’ He is reticent to elaborate on the skills he brings to the role, believing the task of identifying those belongs rightly to others.
However, he does concede that a capacity for effective leadership is something his long military career has refined, and is quick to point out that the modern military leader is not the clichéd blustering authoritarian of the past. ‘Military’s not about yelling at people, telling them “jump”, and them asking, “How high, sir?” It’s about establishing a team, and making sure the teams understand the objectives.’
‘I hope I bring leadership (to CASA). I want to engage with people and understand what the issues are out there, so we can go through the process of rectifying [the issues], or at least coming to a common understanding.’
“You might never be able to have agreement about something, but at least there can be an understanding about where CASA sits versus where others sit. It’s mutual respect. That’s where I’m going when I engage with industry—I’m not here to tell you what to do. I want to understand what it is you do, and how I can best help you, as the regulator, do it safely.”
Skidmore’s tenure is very new: Flight Safety Australia spoke to him on day three of the new job, but he is clear on CASA’s role. ‘I see it as maintaining and enhancing the safety of aviation in Australia: pure and simple.’ In the month before his official start date, he did a lot of pre-appointment reading, looking at the history of CASA, and its predecessor, the CAA; at government reports and coronial inquiries.
From that research, ‘looking at the incidents and accidents that shaped policy, you can see a cyclic approach’, he says. ‘We’ve gone from the one end of being very friendly, to the other extreme of being the “big R” regulator. I want to level that off, and to stop bouncing between extremes.’
His early discussions with industry have led to his adoption of the phrase ‘partners in safety’. ‘The operators aren’t in the business to have an accident. I get the feeling that they want to work with us. They understand the need to have regulations in place so they can operate safely, and make money,’ he says. Another term Skidmore has very deliberately adopted is referring to the wider range of aviation participants as ‘the aviation community’. ‘Being a general aviation pilot myself (Skidmore owns a Globe Swift), I had the feeling that there was a lot of talk about the high end of town—a lot of focus there. To some degree that’s rightly so, because of the number of paying passengers; but I felt that the other end, and also the maintenance organisations, were feeling a bit left out. Recreational aircraft, glider pilots, parachutists, we don’t tend to talk about them. I want a term that captures everyone—on the ground and in the air.’
In messages to CASA staff, Skidmore has been emphasising four themes, which will be his priorities. These themes sit under the key theme of aviation safety, ‘which of course is the top priority’. For him the four ‘cs’ are ‘communication, cost, complexity and consistency’. In other interviews he has stressed the importance of listening, wanting to keep industry (and in this case it is the industry) confident that ‘I am listening to what they are saying,’ even if not necessarily in agreement with what they are saying.’
The theme of cost relates to Skidmore’s commitment that while pursuing necessary regulatory reform, for example, the financial impact on the aviation community and CASA will be an important consideration. The aim is to keep related costs as low as possible, while not compromising the achievement of the best possible safety result.
The third of the themes—complexity—relates to the acknowledgment that while legal requirements may dictate how some regulation is developed and presented, CASA will try to ensure that it provides clear, jargon-free explanations of what people have to do to comply.
The last of his themes is consistency. In the January CASABriefing, CASA’s e-newsletter for the aviation community, Skidmore says ‘CASA must be consistent in its decision making and actions. It is unacceptable for different areas within CASA to present different views on the same issues to the aviation community.’ He quotes the defence model: ‘there was very much standardisation across defence. In air force, there was a flow down of instruction and orders. The process of how you did things was very structured.’
His focus for the first part of his appointment will be on meeting several challenges. ‘The issue of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) is concerning me. RPA is going to be a focus for this year and the next, and we’re going to have to work with ICAO to understand where others are going. At the bigger end of town, the commercial operators are doing the right thing, and getting operators’ certificates. I applaud them for that. It’s the sector where there are people who perhaps don’t understand the implications of what they are doing (which is worrying).’
He believes that if the safety culture of model aircraft, which is exemplary, can be applied to the RPA environment, safety would improve. The model aircraft operators ‘know and understand where they can fly, how high they can fly, and they do it very well. If we can get that sort of culture going among small RPA operators that would be great.’
“What will really drive what I do for the first year will be implementing the government’s aviation safety regulation review, including the implementation of the new regulations and their ongoing improvement.”
His commitment to listening to the aviation community goes hand-in-hand with a faith in just culture. ‘I would like to see us introduce more of a just culture.’ He believes in the concept and practice of a just culture, having seen positive examples in the air force, where, for example, someone who reported a mistake was rewarded rather than punished. ‘I would rather have someone come to me and say, “I made a mistake”; and I say “what happened?” And we have a chat and they get trained and don’t do it again. The alternative is people thinking, “I’m not going to say anything, because I don’t want to be hit with a fine”.’
‘Most times we’re going to find people made mistakes because they didn’t have the education and training to know better. All humans make mistakes. In that case we should be supporting them to get that education and training.’
However, he is emphatic about CASA’s reaction to cases of deliberate and wilful negligence. ‘That’s a different matter completely. Any cynical attempt to exploit just culture would be met very harshly,’ he said. ‘We’ve still got a big stick, but I’d much rather use the carrot.’