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Volume 46 | Issue 1 | January 2004

People & Places

photo: Lawrence Davis
From office to cockpit, Dryden Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance Lawrence Davis has enjoyed a long career with NASA and the Air Force in which safety has played a defining role.
Nasa Photo / by Tom Tschida

Davis shepherds continual improvement efforts

Jay Levine
X-Press Editor

Lawrence Davis has been on all sides of the workforce at Dryden, serving as a civil servant, a contractor and a customer. But it was his record and the value he placed on safety that Dryden officials admired when selecting Davis to head the Center's safety effort.

Now two years into his tenure as chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, Davis said great strides are being made in Dryden safety procedures. He has a vision, however, for better preparing the Center for the unexpected and for refining some of those procedures to close the loop on potential areas of complacency.

"I have seen during the past five years an increased awareness of safety and how important it is that we pay attention to the hazards that are out there," he said. "We're better, but we have a long way to go. We've discovered that there still is some fear of retribution for reporting on safety concerns. If there is any fear at all, we have to address that."

Looking at the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report gave Center officials a look at NASA culture and its impacts on resources, budget and scheduling Agency-wide. That, in turn, was compared with Dryden's situation, and Center officials saw there were lessons that could be applied here in an attempt to keep people and property safe, Davis said.

One way officials seek to make changes is through improved communication.

"I have an open door and there are many people who come to talk to me," Davis said. "I also believe we have a good dialogue with the Make Dryden Safer Committee. It was a CAIB recommendation that we include dissenting opinions, and that's something we'll be incorporating into our practices."

Also, he said, the monotony of routine can often lead to disaster.

"Go ask the average person," he said. "Would they have thought that a piece of foam could bring down the Shuttle? Everybody would have laughed. But that's what happened. You have to go beyond what you think is obvious. It's hard to look beyond that. It's human nature not to do that. Something minor may require a step back in order to see the true impact."

Dryden's mission assurance group already does most of what is listed in the CAIB recommendations. However, Davis said some refinements are being considered as a means of "rotating people through" to encourage fresh perspectives on engineering and hazard analysis.

"The process and the people are outstanding. We catch most of what's wrong, but do miss things." For example, he noted, "we lost (the) Helios (prototype)."

The Helios prototype was lost June 26 when undampened pitch oscillations lead to a partial breakup of the aircraft in midair while flying at an altitude of 3,000 feet in restricted airspace over the Pacific Ocean, according to an interim status report released by the Mishap Investigation Board. The incident occurred about 10 miles west of Kauai, Hawaii.

"Our flight assurance procedures are working well, but not at 100 percent. Maybe we're at about 90 percent. There are always things out there that can get us in trouble," Davis said.

As one example, he cited the microburst storms that blackened the air twice this summer and revealed a need for additional procedures to be established.

"None of us thought about a dust storm like that. I looked out the window and could not see in front of me. The dust storms caused the fire alarms to go off, and then everybody said, 'OK, we have to evacuate.' We were sitting in a meeting here with the curtains closed. We didn't know what was going on. In fact, when I looked out I thought maybe it was smoke that was causing the problem and we said, 'let's get out of here.'

"Well, once we got out the door I realized that wasn't the right thing to do, and we had a number of hazards. People were driving and they couldn't see where they were going, people with asthma were having really bad attacks. Alarms were going off. You never know when something is going to pop up like that that you just haven't thought of before. We learn.

"Now, we have more masks for people and we're looking to rewrite our emergency response. We intend to practice that type of event more often," he explained.

A different concept called "shelter in place" emerged from the dust-storm incidents, which essentially means that people will be directed to stay where they are in an emergency until directed by officials to do otherwise. Such procedures, which can be utilized in a variety of disaster scenarios, must be practiced during employee drills for events requiring evacuation.

"People can look out for each other. Quit thinking everyone is like you. Some people can't see in the dark as well, or don't have the same physical capabilities to escape," he said.

"We have only practiced getting out of buildings in case of fires, but there might be some exercises where we'll keep people where they are, such as for some potential earthquake situations or a toxic incident elsewhere on base," he added.

For those reasons and many others, Davis said everyone must play a key role in identifying and resolving safety problems. Employees potentially identify a health risk through the Close Calls reporting forms, available around the Center, or may take a larger role by joining a building safety committee or participating in Make Dryden Safer activities.

"Safety officials can't see everything," Davis acknowledged.

It is through experience that people identify potential problems - a mantra he uses when reviewing potential risks.

"I was a test pilot and worked with systems safety personnel. I have personal experience and understanding of what goes on in flight test. I can take lessons learned over the years and very easily apply them. In the cockpit, it's your life on the line. You become very aware of the safety issues. That's what I usually do - I put myself in the situation of, 'if I was going to go fly, what would I be most interested and curious about?'

"So that really leads to a lot of the questions," he said.

Having gained familiarity with safety of flight and mission assurance activities through hours logged in the cockpit, Davis found the process of learning ground safety complex as he delved into the large number of state and federal regulations that accompany it. However, he clarified, one truth is applicable to all areas of safety.

"I know how important it is that when you recognize something is not quite right, you need to investigate it to find out exactly what it is before it bites you. That applies everywhere, whether it's environmental, or some kind of ground hazard or a slip-trip-and-fall hazard. Constantly being aware of surroundings is something you pick up as a test pilot that applies across the board," he said.

Davis' experience didn't end with the cockpit. He was a systems safety engineer at Dryden for Kalman & Company, during which he worked on such innovative - and potentially dangerous - projects as the X-38 prototype, which was envisioned as a crew return vehicle for the International Space Station. He also served as the systems safety engineer for the Eclipse project, wherein a Kelly Space and Technology F-106 was towed behind an Air Force C-141A, and the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) that sought to fire an aerospike engine during flight on the back of an SR-71.

Hazard analysis of the most risky work includes risk mitigation during the design phase. A project's most dangerous aspects must be thought out well in advance of actual production. The X-38, for example, was modeled after the X-23 "black," or secret, project, from which information was derived by engineers at Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, for use in the X-38's design.

"It was a real opportunity to learn the 'space side' of everything," Davis recalled.

On the Eclipse project, research by Al Bowers, Dryden's Eclipse chief engineer, indicated that Germany had had prior experience towing an aircraft, but not with an aircraft as large as an F-106. Davis' background as a glider pilot was helpful because he understood the dynamics and safety issues involved in towing an aircraft.

Even before his tenure at the Center, Davis was well acquainted with Edwards Air Force Base and Dryden. As an Air Force pilot, he had been assigned to Edwards as an F-16 test pilot, operations officer at Test Operations, and for four years served as chief test pilot and project manager for the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration (AFTI) F-16 program flown at Dryden.

"I used all that flight test background and learning and applied it to all these projects," Davis said.

He also taught for five years at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, where he fondly recalls being current on as many as 15 aircraft simultaneously during his tenure there. Also on his resume is two years of teaching at the Air Force Flight Test School at Edwards and in the math department at the Air Force Academy.

Davis grew up in Oklahoma City and attended the University of Oklahoma, were he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering. He was a distinguished graduate with class 80B from the Air Force Test Pilot School.