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PREVENTING AN AVIATION DISASTER (OR OVERCOMING HUMAN ERROR IN FLIGHT THROUGH THE POWER OF LANGUAGE)

  • In Uncategorized
  • 14 August 2015

Even before, and especially after, the Tenerife airport disaster—where two Boeing 747s collided on the runway and 583 of the 644 passengers aboard died—the aviation community has been actively engaged in minimizing human error in flight operations. Much has been written about this topic. As an aviation attorney at Bailey & Partners, and an aviation safety officer, this area is of prime importance to me. The power of language will continue evolving in the area of aircrew coordination, with the goal being to prevent aviation disasters.

Regarding aircrew coordination, post-Tenerife, the pilot in command’s complete domination of the cockpit began to change. Concepts to integrate the co-pilot emerged in what was originally coined cockpit resource management (“CRM”). This first language choice was designed to integrate the co-pilot into the flying, communication, and decision making process. Shortly thereafter, cockpit resource management became crew resource management, to be more inclusive of additional crew beyond the pilot and co-pilot. Concurrently, the military integrated crew resource management with flight leadership. (Here, a flight is defined as two or more aircraft flying together with one flight lead, where, for example, a flight of two would have a lead and a wingman.) The old model of flight leadership is best captured in this saying: if you are anyone other than the flight lead, you have three responsibilities, “keep up, shut up, and don’t ‘f _ _ _’ up.” That model has gone the way of the dinosaur.

In 2000, when I began my career in naval aviation, CRM was integrated into flight training from day one. I was taught that there are “flying pilot” duties and “non-flying” pilot duties, and that a wingman should speak up when lead is making a safety-of-flight mistake. CRM terminology largely remains the same in military aviation today. However, while recently attending the Aviation Safety Commander’s Course at the Naval School of Aviation Safety, I learned that in commercial aviation, the term “pilot not flying” has been replaced with “pilot monitoring.” This change only makes sense given the recent Air France Flight 447 and Asiana Airlines Flight 214 aviation disasters. From “cockpit” to “crew” and “non-flying pilot” to “pilot monitoring,” these changes in terminology are decreasing the likelihood of a human error mishap/crash. The steady decline in mishap rates since the 1970s suggests such a correlation.

In terms of overcoming risk, flying is inherently dangerous. The old adage that “there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots” unpacks so much about why and how pilots and crews continue to crash airplanes. There is always risk anytime you take off, so how have we taught pilots to successfully takeoff and land in spite of this inherent risk? The Navy and Marine Corps espouses operational risk management (“ORM”) as a decision-making tool to analyze hazards, implement controls, and make decisions to minimize risk. What I have noticed recently are additional changes in language related to overcoming risk. For example, now the Marine Corps essentially dropped the “O” and the process is Risk Management (“RM”), which is more all-encompassing. The Flight Safety Foundation now refers to a “Risk Resilient” organization.

Our aviation community is a proactive one. Proactivity in thought and word choice can save lives and prevent aviation disasters.

By F. Phillip Peche @ Bailey & Partners