…all the way to impact….



Why two pilots on the flightdeck? 


Because it works? 


Actually it often doesn’t.


One of the most frequently-cited examples of the failure of the multi-crew monitoring concept is the Eastern Airlines Lockheed TriStar accident back in 1972. On a night approach to Miami there was a problem with the landing gear indication, and the crew of three (two pilots and a flight engineer) fixated on that while the aircraft quietly descended into the Everglades, killing 5 crew and 94 passengers.


The theory, of course, is that while one pilot is flying an aircraft, the other pilot is watching to make sure he flies right.


In theory! But it often doesn’t work that way.


As Boeing’s Capt Philip Adrian described it at the Royal Aeronautical Society last week, the Eastern accident – and many others like it since then – was a case of three pairs of eyes “monitoring all the way to impact”.


You have to be sure you are monitoring the things that really matter.


I’m having a look again at the monitoring issue because statistics show that, unless two pilots in a crew have a really well-coordinated working relationship, there might as well be only one.


Unless a pilot has been trained via the (relatively new) MPL route, s/he was trained to fly as an individual, without any help, and without being trained (or tested) in people management skills (for which read crew management skills). 


The reward for the individualistic training system is a CPL, which becomes an ATPL just by accumulating airborne time.


If you are on your own in charge of an aeroplane, life may get busy sometimes, but at least you are definitely in charge; there’s no-one there to confuse you. And flying is pretty simple anyway…


Pre-flight checks.jpg



So, why two pilots? Well, if we want to understand where we are, it helps to understand where we came from.


From about 1930 to 1980 it was like this: the Captain knew what He was doing, and the copilot would do what he was told. The copilot wasn’t actually much use, he was just doing apprenticeship time.


When aeroplanes got bigger and more complex, the Flight Engineer was added the crew. The Captain and Fight Engineer talked, and heeded each other’s advice. 


While the Captain was doing the flying, the copilot did what he was told and quietly got on with tasks he hoped might be useful. 


When the copilot was doing the flying, the Captain’s job was to give him a hard time and make a man of him (heaven help the few female copilots in the business at the time).


In the 1970s Flight Engineers were gradually made redundant by automated technology, and the Captain suddenly found himself quite busy in his fast, complex jet aeroplane. It gradually dawned on Him that He still had someone to shout at but no-one to talk to. 


In the same decade, crew resource management (CRM) was invented to try to make the Captain use the copilot’s skills, despite the fact that the Captain knew perfectly well that the copilot didn’t have any. 


So CRM largely failed until the Traditional Captains began to retire. Even then, CRM had a bit of an experimental feel about it, and in some airlines it still does.


In theory, whichever pilot is doing the flying, the other one assists with simple tasks like selecting gear or flaps, and making radio calls, but mainly his/her task is monitoring the PF’s  actions, the results of those actions on the flight path, and comparing what is happening with what is intended. 


As I argued in the previous blog, monitoring is a core piloting task, but it remains an underrated one. Good monitoring could have prevented countless fatal airline accidents in the last 20 years. And in most of them, the captain was doing the flying and the copilot was failing either to monitor effectively, or to intervene effectively, or both. 


One of the most oft-repeated truths at the RAeS conference was that monitoring without an intervention strategy is pointless. 


The monitoring pilot must be able to challenge what is happening, and be heeded even if s/he happens to be the junior pilot. Ultimately, for the captain to say “I have control” is not a problem, but for a copilot to say it is culturally fraught with complexity, even though it should not be.


This subject needs the scrutiny it is now being given.

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One Response to …all the way to impact….

  1. Chitragupta 22 March, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    Ahhhhhhh but how many “saves” were there by those extra sets of Mark I eyeballs that none of us ever heard about because someone spoke up?

    We will always hear of the few accidents that would have still occurred even with ten extra eyeballs in the cockpit but we will never know how many accidents would have happened if for the last fifty years all airliners were flow single pilot.

    At my company if the First Officer calls for a go around it is mandatory. Which is probably best because off the other end of the runway with lots of altitude underneath our faithful heros is the time to discuss what the other guy saw or even better at the gate.

    A Captain has no legs to stand on in front of the Chief Pilot so long as the First Officer was complying with book procedures.

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