Supervision & Human Errors

“To Err may be human but it is for that human to suffer”! And someone else mentioned that accidents happen because “from design to construction to flying and maintenance, a human is involved. Any failure of any human in this chain could lead to an accident. Thus all accidents are due to ‘Human Error’. Where no human is blameworthy then it is an Act of God.”


Alexander Pope in one of his essays stated that “To err is Human”. An erstwhile Air Chief, however, twisted the words of Alexander Pope and said “To Err may be human but it is for that human to suffer”! And some else mentioned that accidents happen because “from design to construction to flying and maintenance, a human is involved. Any failure of any human in this chain could lead to an accident. Thus all accidents are due to ‘Human Error’. Where no human is blameworthy then it is an Act of God.”

In the IAF, aircraft accidents have happened mainly due to:

  1. Lack of experience
  2. Over/under confidence
  3. Inadequate training
  4. Lack of or absence of supervision.
  5. Lack of Self-discipline

Let us discuss these in succeeding paragraphs.

Accidents, as the word suggests, do happen. It would be naïve to record them as “Acts of God”.  A theoretically qualified person may have the requisite knowledge but may not have adequate experience to undertake a given task. Therefore, like in the medical profession, there needs to be a period of “internship” under an experienced person for the newly inducted worker. In the IAF, many a times one is transferred from one type of aircraft/equipment to another. It would be a fallacy to consider such a person ‘experienced’ on the new type merely because of his/her seniority in Service. Hence, experience on type assumes greater importance.

Many accidents, especially those involving aircraft, take place due to an individual being under confident or, in some cases, over confident. Under confidence stems from inadequate training, low motivation or an inherent fear of failure. Over confidence is essentially an over dose of egoistic tendencies. Both such conditions are detrimental to safe operations.

Training plays a very important role in building up an individual’s confidence and self-esteem. The training patterns adopted must not be over demanding and at the same time not be mediocre in nature. Good training methods those are easy to imbibe and instill the requisite amount of confidence leading to a well motivated professional.

A well motivated, confident and professionally trained individual would be less prone to making errors. Supervisors play a very important role in not only the growth of an individual’s professional capabilities but also in minimizing errors committed by them leading to accidents/incidents.

So, what is ‘Supervision’?

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “the act of watching a person or activity and making certain that everything is done correctly, safely, etc”.

Supervision is an act or action that is provided by a senior member of a profession to a junior member or members of that same profession. This action serves the purpose of enhancing the professional functioning of a relatively junior member(s) of a group by monitoring the quality of professional services undertaken. It stands to reason that the Supervisor himself is expected to be knowledgeable both in theory and practical aspects of the job in hand. It is the supervisor who instills confidence in the supervisee through suggestions and advice.

In aviation, supervision assumes greater importance since the margins of error are very narrow. While, say, the newly inducted aircraft technician working on an aircraft may be qualified after undergoing the requisite training on type, he would lack the experience. This is where the supervisor assumes the role of a guide and mentor to ensure that the task is accomplished without any issues. Professional supervision is a process to enable and guide a worker towards competent and accountable practice. It also provides ongoing professional development and support.

In the Air Force supervision, therefore, means to carry out functions of planning, organizing and monitoring the tasks at various levels Supervisors at the top (Officers) supervise the activities of middle-level managers (Warrant Ranks) who supervise the activities of lower level managers Sergeants) who finally supervise the conduct of non-managers i.e. Corporals and below.

Supervision serves the following objectives:

  1. Promotes communication: It helps Supervisors at all levels to understand workers’ goals, and workers understand organizational goals and, thus, contribute to organizational productivity.
  2. Promote motivation: Supervision along with two-way communication motivates the workers to achieve the organizational targets.
  3. Evaluate performance: Supervision evaluates the performance of workers and determines their potential to enhance professional ability.
  4. Improve performance: If workers are not able to complete the allocated tasks, supervision helps in guiding and improving their performance.

Some supervisors assume the role of a “Helicopter” supervisor by always hovering around the worker. At times such ‘hovering’ is counter-productive because the worker feels that there is a trust-deficit. This could lead to missing carrying out an essential aspect of the task. Some supervisors are at the other extreme of the spectrum and accept that a task has been completed without checking themselves.

A good supervisor is one who briefs his subordinates with clarity about the tasks required to be performed. Once the subordinate reports completion of the given task, it is incumbent on the supervisor to check that the work has been done following the correct procedures. In aviation there is no leeway to take short-cuts.

Last but not the least; discipline plays a very vital role in avoiding accidents. No amount of supervision would be successful if this vital ingredient is missing from an individual’s mental makeup. While discipline forms an intrinsic part of an Air Warrior’s service life, at times it plays truant and gets the individual in to a difficult situation. Therefore, it is important for an Air Warrior to develop a sense of “self- discipline”. The dictionary defines “Self Discipline” as “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses.” This attribute can be developed through training and practice. Yoga and meditation could be adopted to achieve a high degree of self discipline. In the ultimate analysis it is this factor that is overwhelmingly responsible for avoiding accidents.

Finally, Indian Air Force can ill-afford to lose personnel and equipment due to lackadaisical approach to tasks by its personnel especially the supervisors. Supervision and Human Errors are interlinked and must be well understood by all the key players in the chain of command. Reduction, if not elimination, of human error accidents/incidents is achievable if supervisors at all levels go about their tasks in a professional manner.

Air Cmde Ashok Chhibbar       

Air Cmde AD Chhibbar, AVSM (Retd)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *