Subscribe by Email

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Do, Or Do Not. There Is No Try."

A colleague recently paid me a complement.  It was in the context of his upgrade to Captain. He said,  ”I value what you say because of all that you have experienced during your career.”  I was flattered and thanked him.  My real gratitude came when it caused me to actually think about what I had learned from my nearly 30 years in the left seat of a commercial airliner.

A Jedi Master, I am not. Some days, however, I do feel the way Yoda looks.  I have learned a few things along the way and I want to share them with those who are interested.  Each one of these little proverbs was distilled from actual experience.  Some wisdom I gained as a Captain was acquired from watching and listening.  Other things I had to learn the way I learned not to ride my bike with flip flops, even after my Mom said, “Put your shoes on!”

These are not procedural steps like a recipe for success, rather a path to a more rewarding and effective state of mind.

•    Know how to stay safe and commit to that goal.  There are no do overs with safety

•    Find something you like about going to work

•    Try to make your co workers job easier, or at least not more difficult

•    You don’t need to know how to build or repair the airplane, just how to operate it

•    Think about how you would manage critical non normal and emergency situations before you experience them

•    Establish and maintain your focus on the flight from pushback to block in

•    Never ever let someone inside or outside the airplane talk you into doing something you are not 100% OK with

•    When you are making a decision, reflect on how it would be judged after the fact

•    You don’t always know whom you are talking to or who might hear or read what you have said.  Watch what you say

•    Always tell the truth, they’re going to find out anyway

•    If you are not absolutely, positively sure of the answer, look it up

•    If you have a question or are unsure about anything, get it resolved BEFORE you leave. It will only get worse

•    When you set a bottom line, make sure you have a realistic plan “B” that you are completely willing to implement

•    Remember the customers pay your salary.  Give them what they want

Let the force be with you!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Stanley J .Blaszczak

Today is my Dad’s 90th birthday.  I am sad that I cannot be with him on this special day.

My father is the embodiment of what it is to be an American.  He was born of immigrants in Hamtramck, the Polish section of Detroit, Michigan, September 16, 1921.  His early years can be described as typical for kids of immigrant families of that time.  An almost Lord of the Flies environment existed in his neighborhood where survival was your responsibility and you got only the respect you earned.  Sometime it took wits and sometimes fists to establish your credibility.  That same dynamic also existed within his family and the families of his peers as well. 

After leaving home at a young age and supporting himself as a laborer during the depression, he joined the U. S. Army in 1939 and served until the end of WWII.  While waiting for deployment to the South Pacific he was stationed at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan.  As the guest of a local family he met and eventually married Becky Abbey, the younger daughter of that host family.

After the war Stan used the skills he learned in the Army to work as a mechanic for the Bell Telephone System.  He excelled at many positions in the phone company because of his ability to quickly and logically diagnose and fix things.  Along with my mother he raised two sons.  My brother and I graduated from college and became very successful in our fields.  Stan worked hard, fought for his country, was very generous with his time, knew how to laugh and make things fun, was the best Scoutmaster there ever was, taught me how to fix things and know the difference between right and wrong.

I will never know the extent of his influence, both positive and negative, that has helped make me who I am today.  Sometimes his actions were well intentioned, but poorly executed.  As a father of my own children I understand him more every day.  I am grateful for all of his influence because no matter what was done it was always with a loving heart. 

Stan in a widower for a second time and living in Las Vegas, Nevada

(Happy Birthday, Daddy)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Does This Make Sense ?

I never noticed this interesting conundrum until it was recently pointed out to me. There are Braille markings on drive up ATMs.  Does this make sense?  Just as absurd, I have always wondered why are there handicap parking spots at Sonic Drive In.  You couldn’t walk in and buy a cheeseburger if you wanted to.   These are just a few examples of the paradox that is created when a myopic perspective is used to universally implement regulatory policy and procedure.  It is surprising how many things we take for granted that just don’t make sense when we really think about them. 

Accident prevention is an oxymoron that applies to aviation.  Mishaps can be prevented, bad decisions can be avoided, but not accidents.    “Accident” is defined as an event that happens unexpectedly and did not have a cause or intended plan.  Accidents are bad luck, not mistakes.   I am not arguing that plane crashes are an objective of deliberate intention by the crew.  At the same time, however, most crashes are the result of a lack of a deliberate plan to avoid them.  Human initiated mishaps occur every day.  True accidents are fortunately quite rare.

Stephen Barlay stated in the introduction of his 1990 dissertation on airline disasters, The Final Call , “There are no new types of air crashes – only people with short memories.  Every accident has its own forerunners, and every one happens either because somebody did not know where to draw the vital dividing line between the unforeseen and the unforeseeable or because well-meaning people deemed the risk acceptable.”

No airline crew ever departs with an objective or outcome in mind other than a safe operation and a successful flight.  All flights do not result in a successful outcome however.  Somewhere on that very, very small number of unsuccessful flights, somewhere between departure and arrival, Mr. Barlay’s prophecy creeps in.  If I, or anyone, could explain that anomaly thousands of lives could be saved.  One thing I do know is that victory over unmanaged human error can only be achieved one flight at a time.  A quote by Gerry Bruggink referenced in Final Call very perceptibly describes the root of all pilot error, especially with respect to multi pilot crews,  “uncritical acceptance of easily verifiable assumptions”.

Pilots specifically and the aviation industry in general have a lexicon that is ripe for misinterpretation.  Comedians have exploited the aviation malapropism “near miss” in their routines for years.  It’s funny because the audience understands the contradiction.  Here are two aviation terms that beg for an serious explanation when there is none. Wind shear takeoff and night visual approach.

Wind shear takeoff is the one that confuses me the most.  I have said this before, “Takeoffs are 100% voluntary.”   Why would a pilot or crew knowingly takeoff into conditions that include or are likely to produce wind shear?  Some aircraft flight manuals, when discussing wind shear, actually contain statements like, “If after careful consideration, takeoff is attempted the following performance enhancements should be used.” And the manual goes on to suggest things like a higher takeoff speed, lower flap setting and extra thrust from the engines.  Are they really serious?  The most effective configuration for an airplane when wind shear conditions exist or are expected is with the parking brake set.

Night visual approach is another oxymoron.  Does this one really need an explanation?   Night visual approaches are conducted all the time though.  Why?  Is it more convenient?  Is it easier?  Is it necessary?  Or is it that, as Mr. Barlay writes in Final Call, “Well-meaning people deemed the risk acceptable”?  Data supports that far too often airline pilots come close to terrain and obstacles during these “night visual” approaches.  Can we quantify “too often” in this context?  How does “ever” sound? 

When the goal is a safe operation, how do we rationalize a wind shear takeoff or, even in areas without hazardous terrain, a night visual approach?   Have we become too complacent, too dependent on enhanced flight directors and ground proximity warning systems?  Maybe some wind shear is not hazardous?  Pardon the pun, but maybe we just don’t see night visual approaches as risky.  Why are they not perceived as risky?  Maybe, like the handicapped spot at Sonic, we just take them for granted.

I just thought of one more aviation oxymoron, “acceptable risk”.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Automation Addiction

The media has picked up on the current catchphrase in air transportation, “automation addiction”.  It refers to the over reliance of a pilot or crew on the auto-flight management system of todays modern airliners.  Conventional wisdom says the solution is for pilots to operate the aircraft in the manual mode more often, referred to as “hand flying”.

These flight management computers, and there are many of them on any given airliner, once programmed can operate the aircraft systems and navigate it vertically and horizontally for many hours without further human input or supervision.  There are even visual and audio reminders to alert the crew when they have not made any inputs to the aircraft for an extended period.  As long as the assumptions programmed into the computers don’t change and there are no hardware or software failures, everything works out ok.  Since assumptions do change and there are mechanical and technological  failures, a human is necessary to deal with these contingencies.  This is what many pilots see as their role on the flight deck, the monotonous monitoring of the “autopilot”.  I disagree that pilots are addicted to automation.  I believe they don’t know how to use and manage it properly and therefore, misuse or abuse it.

Today, anyone can buy an inexpensive digital camera, still or video, that will take pretty good pictures in most conditions.  For a little more money cameras can be purchased, when set to the automatic mode, that are virtually fool proof for taking pictures in any environment.  The term “point and shoot” is often used to refer to that style of camera. Highly sophisticated point and shoot cameras are used everyday by talented professional photographers.  Are they becoming addicted to the automation?

Can a photographer be addicted to his automation?  Is the same solution proposed for the pilot appropriate for the digital photographer?  Is it that they need to operate their devices in the manual mode more often?  That is the aviation industry’s suggested answer to automation addiction in the airplane.  Ansel Adams once said, “Knowing what I know now, any photographer worth his salt could make some beautiful things with pinhole cameras."  I don’t think he was suggesting that professional photographers should go back to using pinhole cameras. I believe he was saying that the outcome was not primarily a function of the tools used to produce it.  He was trying to point out that the camera itself was not responsible for how well it was used.

Reverting back to the pinhole camera doesn’t make the photographer better nor does it teach him how to use a more sophisticated instrument.  Neither does manually flying an airplane necessarily make the pilot competent or teach him how to better manage the automation.  What then, is the answer to automation abuse?  It is the same for both photographer and pilot? Yes, it is the opportunity and desire for the user to learn about why they use/misuse automation the way they do.

With either aviation or photography, it is not an addiction to, but rather the misuse of automation that is the problem.  If the desired outcome can be created more efficiently through the use of automation, what is the problem?  The abuse comes when the abilities of the automation are substituted for the talents of the user.   Abuse comes when the automation is used to excess or inappropriately.  This happens most often when the pilot or crew mentally disengages from the aircraft and abdicates its command to the automation.

Whether one chooses to call it, incorrectly I believe, addiction, or call it abuse, the treatment is the same.  Some form of rehabilitation must take place.  Misuse, however, is not an attribute of the thing being used.  Whether the object is a substance like cocaine, an activity like watching TV or the automation on an airliner, it cannot abuse itself.   It is the user that is responsible for the use or misuse of the object.  It is now known that effective rehab is not about the substance, but the abuser.   Treatment should focus on the individual, not the substance or activity.

What should the treatment for automation abuse be?  What would “automation rehab” look like?  It would begin by identifying the characteristics of automation abuse.  It would include an admission by individuals, operators, manufacturers and regulators that automation abuse exists and is a shared problem.  Investigating and identifying the factors that lead pilots or crews to abuse the automation would also be a good place to start.  This process would require a very introspective look by pilots, operators and manufacturers at the role of automation in aviation.  Are individual elements of automation designed to compliment, or to replace, or to enhance or to refine the skills of the human?  These are not easy questions.

I hope we can address the problem of  “automation addiction” in a more enlightened way than we initially handled substance abuse.  I am reminded of a story about a General that was touring the rehab ward of an Army medical facility in the 1960’s.  The General asked, “What are these men here for?”  The nurse responded, “They’re alcoholics, sir.”  The General looked at her with a matter of fact expression and said, “Well, tell’em to stop drinkin.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

What About The kids ?

When I started this blog it was my intent to avoid labor/management issues.  The rhetoric has become so loud that I feel compelled to weigh in.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a two-parent household with my mother and father.  Times weren’t always sunshine and butterflies, but it worked out pretty well.  We had good times and not so good times.  My Dad was a telephone man back in the days when if your phone quit working a man in a green truck pulled up to your house and fixed it, no charge.  My mom worked part time for a local gift shop.  I have a brother three years older who was always doing homework.  We almost always ate dinner together.  It was not quite as idyllic as it sounds, but we were a family.  Although there were hard feelings from time to time, my parents supported us with both time and money.  Our family was their main focus.  Divorce was not the ubiquitous domestic paradigm that it is today.  Adults today often seem to put their individual agendas ahead of their families. 

Airline companies, for some reason, feel a lot like a family.  I don’t know why for sure, but I think it is because of the seniority system and the time flight crews spend away from home.  The seniority system makes it very difficult to change companies without a big potential loss of pay, advancement expectation and working conditions.  Therefore, airline employees have much invested in their company’s future and well-being.  Also, anytime people travel together, there is a bonding that takes place.  In any industry employees feel some connection with their employer, but this seems especially true for those in the airline sector.

Because of the Railway Labor Act and other unique aspects of the air transportation industry most airline employees are unionized.  They organize with either a national or in house union.  Although not absolutely necessary, a collective bargaining agreement or contract helps establish agreements between labor and management on how their relationship will be maintained.  When the relationship is healthy, it resembles a family that has respect for and trusts in its members.  When the relationship is strained it is much more analogous to a divorced couple with joint custody of the children.  If there was not mutual respect and trust by the parents before the divorce, it seldom improves after.

When a divorced couple is given joint custody of the children, rarely do the parents put the children first.  Usually the parents personal agendas take priority over the kids.  Who is responsible for what becomes very emotional.  Both parties think they are being taken advantage of.  Meanwhile the children are continuously bombarded by slanderous rhetoric toward the other parent.  The children are put in a position of having to choose to believe one parent or the other.  Anyone who has experienced that situation knows it is a very difficult place to be.  Both parents usually go to great lengths to defend their positions.  They hide behind their espoused motivation of protecting the kids.  Ironic isn’t it that the kids are the ones that actually suffer the most?  How can children ever respect either one of their parents when all they do it blame and disparage the other one?
They complain and justify their actions to supportive friends and relatives. Sometime they go back to court to have a judge validate their position.  Money is paid to lawyers, a new agreement is imposed and the children are forced to adapt to the new situation.  

When employees are put in this position, safety and quality suffers dramatically.  A little productivity increase for the company or a pay raise for the employees is no more a solution than divorced parents buying themselves or their kids an expensive present as an anesthetic.  It treats the acute symptom, but not the root cause of the problem.   Children need a safe, supportive and stable environment to prosper.  Bickering and confrontation are not the means to that end.  Employees need the same things.  Corporate executives and union leaders have a responsibility to the employees they volunteered to lead.  It is to support, not exploit them.