WHO: Charlie Precourt
Colonel, USAF, Ret.
NASA Astronaut (former)
Four Space Shuttle Missions
Shuttle Commander (STS-84 & STS-91)
Salt Lake City, Utah
VP and GM, Propulsion Systems Orbital ATK
Chairman, EAA Safety Committee
Chairman, Citation Jet Pilot Safety Committee
Various Experimental Authorizations
1. Many of your contributions to general aviation center on safety education and
improving best practices within the pilot community. How did this become a passion?
When I stopped flying professionally, I wanted to continue to fly for my own enjoyment, which exposed me to opportunities in general aviation, my first involvement being with EAA. Paul Poberezny, who I had developed a relationship with during my NASA days, requested my help in improving the safety record across the experimental/homebuilt communities. I happily agreed and started running EAA’s safety committee and have helped with initiatives such as the “additional pilot program.” Since it was initiated three years ago, there has not been a single accident in the first 10 hours of homebuilt flying for those who elect to use the program. What I am trying to do is bring what I learned as best practices in DOD and NASA flying to the GA community.
2. What central areas should the general aviation industry be focused on?
The single largest distinction of GA compared to other flying is you are generally speaking to a single-pilot operation. That leads to the key question: How do we enable the single pilot to be just as safe as a crew? There is still work to be done in finding the equivalent tools and resources for the single pilot that crew resource management (CRM) has done so successfully. One option is improving upon standard practices. In the professional flight community, there are clear procedures for every flight phase/objective, which pilots will perform the same way every time. Whereas, lot of GA pilots do things a little differently each time. There needs to be a set of best practices and techniques that are followed and accepted across all GA flying.
3. You flew four space shuttle missions during your 15-year tenure at NASA. Can you discuss how your experience at NASA equipped you for your subsequent roles in general aviation?
At NASA, the thing to recognize is the space shuttle was the riskiest flying machine you can contemplate. Seven million pounds of thrust lifting 5 million pounds of vehicle vertically off the ground, accelerating in 8 minutes to Mach 25 – and then reversing that in entry. The stated odds of catastrophic failure were somewhere around 1 in 200 flights. So, the entire NASA team was constantly fighting against those odds with every mission. Ultimately, there are four ways to limit risks – eliminate (change a design), transfer (place it somewhere else), mitigate (reduce the likelihood) or just accept (and manage it). That kind of learning is what I am trying to bring to GA.
4. What advice would you provide a non-professional pilot to improve their personal safety standards?
Commit to training and continuous learning. A lot of the GA community has an aversion to training and being evaluated. We need to strive toward training becoming more valued and even desired. The increased knowledge and practice will ultimately make flying more enjoyable. I’d also advise pilots to become a member of their airplane’s type club, read blogs, participate in FAA webinars, read magazines like Twin & Turbine. Learning from others and their experiences is invaluable. When I was a flight student in the Air Force, there were 15 students and 8 instructors in an open-bay classroom. I would actually eavesdrop on pre-briefings and debriefings of other students and learn from their scenarios before I ever ran into them myself.
5. Now in its third year, the EAA Founder’s Innovation Prize is propelling practical solutions to real issues. As a judge, why do you feel this an important approach to improving safety?
The single biggest contributor to fatal accidents in GA is loss of control. Commonly, scenarios where pilots should have been able to get the airplane on the ground but were unprepared or distracted. So, while creating programs like the additional pilot program, another tool we decided to introduce was this Innovation Prize, dedicated to Paul. The idea is to tap into the innovative thinking that already occurs throughout the experimental aircraft community and motivate members to draw up their own solutions to the problem. You never know where a breakthrough might come from, and we felt it was important to open up the floor to members themselves. Already, it’s been a greatly beneficial in raising awareness of the issue and sparking discussion and ideas.