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Friday, April 29, 2011

One More Time


I'm not picking on Southwest here, but as an industry, we've got to quit letting the airplane end up where it is not supposed to be.  Success requires more than good intentions.

Take offs and landings are a choice.  The only time you have to land is when you're out of fuel or on fire.  One is bad planning and the other is bad luck.  Commencing an approach is something that should be undertaken after careful consideration of all the relevant factors, environmental, mechanical, and human. 

Crews must not assume the answers to these questions,  "What are the potential threats and errors?"  "What are the mitigation strategies."

Assumption success is not a guarantee of it.  Just because a maneuver is allowed doesn't mean it is appropriate.  Because the plane ahead was successful does not mean you will be.  And if you get it wrong there are no do-overs.

Enough said.

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's All About The Relationship

I often facilitate workshops that are focused on the human factors in aviation.  Through discussion, the participants always recognize the most valuable component of crew effectiveness is the interaction between the members.  In other words, it's all about the relationship.Marriage and family are all about the relationship as well.  These are the relationships that most people are most familiar with and serve as a model for all others.   What can we learn about crew relationships from marriage and family?     It has been said, "Behind every great man is a great woman."  The source of that saying is not specific, but it originates from the American south.  An early reference appeared in the Texas newspaper The Port Arthur News, from February 1946. This was headed - "Meryll Frost - 'Most courageous athlete of 1945'":
"As he received his trophy, the plucky quarterback unfolded the story of how he 'came back'. He said 'They say behind every great man there's a woman. While I'm not a great man, there's a great woman behind me.'"
Are there good First Officers behind every good Captain? Absolutely!  Are poor First Officers responsible for a bad Captain?  No, but they can sure make the Captain and crew less effective.  While reading the many references to the “Behind every man…”  quote I couldn’t help but notice what one respondent wrote, "It's hard for ANYONE to become successful without the help of a partner for support; a person whose partner actively opposes him stands little chance of success."  We know how true that is on the flight deck!

So what ARE the characteristics of a good First Officer?  Knowledgeable and dependable are certainly important, but if the effectiveness of the crew is dependent on the relationship there must be more.  Help the Captain do the right thing.  Remind them if they forget.  Encourage them when things get difficult.  Challenge them when they get complacent. We can see these traits in the TV characters Claire Huxtable from The Cosby's and June Cleaver from Leave It To Beaver.  Their goal was for their husbands and families to get along and do the right thing.  Sometimes they challenged their husbands, but usually the simply guided and encouraged them to do the right thing.

These women epitomized the anchor point that all good wives and mothers become.  When their families strayed, they would nudge them back toward the correct path.  We have all heard those famous words from our mothers when they challenged us to make the right decision, "You do what YOU think is right." That was usually game over.  Effective First Officers do the same thing by tactfully encouraging their Captains to explain and justify their decisions.
June always seemed to see the situation quite clearly.

Ward Cleaver: Let's face it, June, Wally and Eddie have been friends for four or five years now - nothing's ever really happened.

June Cleaver: But Eddie has that look about him that makes you think something's always about to happen.

Claire was certainly not a pushover.

Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable: Now, when I left here yesterday, it was under some strain, and we all said some things we didn't mean.

Claire Hanks Huxtable: Not me.

Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable: But, it's all over now, and I'm sure we're all big enough to apologize!

Claire Hanks Huxtable: NOT ME!

Did Mrs. Cleaver and Huxtable always get their way?  Of course not.  Did they pout and give the silent treatment?   Did they slam the door and walk out?  No, they didn't.  They supported their husbands and families, but continued to look out for possible threats.  They made sure their loved ones were made aware of all the important information before they got behind their plans.  Marriage and family relationships are much harder than flying with other crew members.  They’re aren’t any regulations and universally accepted SOPs that husbands and wives and fathers and mothers are obligated to follow. They succeed or fail on mutual respect and the quality of their relationships.  Knowing the “Right Thing” is much easier in the airplane.  That is especially when everyone has safety as their primary goal.

Like the mothers epitomized by June Cleaver and Claire Huxtable, First Officers are the anchor point for the crew.  They may not set the tone on the flight deck, but they have plenty of influence on the relationship.  The best First Officers I have ever flown with do this with style and grace.  It's been said that you need to be a "chameleon" to be a good First Officer.  I believe it would be more accurate to say "politician".  Good First Officers don't need to change with each Captain, but may need to have a different kind of relationship.  Some Captains are more serious, some less talkative.  A good First Officer will learn to observe the Captain and respect his style.  Along the way they might even learn something.  They can certainly do this without compromising their standards.  Every Captain wants the same thing, and incident free flight.

There is one situation that all good Captains dislike.  Making a choice between being a “good guy” and doing the right thing.  A Captain that compromises what is right to please their First Officer is not a Captain.  A First Officer who tries to get their Captain to compromise his pursuit of the right path is at least disrespectful and at worst mutinous.   How will this First Officer handle the tough decisions when they move to the left seat?

 If it IS truly all about the relationship, First Officers have an opportunity to make a profound impact on the effectiveness of their crew.  Just like the women characterized by Claire Huxtable and June Cleaver, supporting and encouraging our partners to do the right thing is always a highly respected responsibility.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Do You Have A Problem ?

I have been flying Tokyo trips for the past few weeks.  At the present time I don't feel a threat to my or my crew's safety flying to NRT.  There continues to be aftershocks and the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant will be an environmental disaster.  The devastation and loss of life in the Sendai area is heartbreaking.  My Tokyo story comes from a breakfast conversation with one of the First Officers on my crew.  Prompted by the current events we reflected on things important to us.   We shared family stories and both agreed that if everyone is safe, that's what matters.   He shared a little bit of wisdom he had once heard.  "If you can write a check, you don't have a problem."  How true that is. 

The pilots' corollary might be, "As long as the airplane is flyable, you don't have a problem."  There are artificial restrictions and regulations, but usually the limitation on how long we can fly is a function of how much fuel we have.  With the redundancy built into today’s airliners, most non-normal conditions do not render the airplane unflyable.  Rather, they reduce the safety margin and/or make the airplane more difficult to fly.  At the other end of the spectrum, probably the most time critical situation a crew will face is an in-flight fire.   Incidents have shown that the situation will last about 20-30 minutes maximum.  After that it will be resolved, either to a stable or catastrophic conclusion. 

A tragic example of this scenario occurred when Swissair 111 crashed near Halifax in September 1998.  The time from that crew's first report of trouble until the aircraft crashed was approximately 21 minutes.  Although ignited by an electrical fault, once the surrounding material caught fire, shutting off electrical power could not extinguish the fire.  Fighting the fire became a crucial element in their survival. The severity of the crash and the loss of the final portion of CVR data made recreation of the crews' desperate final moments difficult.  What would the Swissair crew say to us about handling in-flight fires?

I have included a “Resources” page on my website with links to information from the FAA and Flight Safety Foundation regarding Swissair 111 and in-flight fires.  From reading those articles and watching the linked video I have made two conclusions.  First, think about what you would do if faced with an in-flight fire before it happens.  Have a strategy in mind so that when it does happen you will have a plan and be able to manage the chaos that will naturally exist.  Second, at the very first sign of an in-flight fire, take immediate action.  Declare an emergency, put on goggles and masks and start a descent toward a point of intended landing even if you are over water.  You will either get the situation under control or in a very limited time continued flight will no longer be possible. 

Two of my many professional collegues were instrumental with information and motivation for this blog.  You know who you are, so thank you very much!

If we are ever to contemplate how we would manage an in-flight fire, the time is now.