I love to fly. That’s probably a good thing, as I am currently 941,870 miles on the way to my “Million Mile Status”.
Ironically, I’m also fascinated with plane crashes. I can’t pass up watching an episode of a series that recreates them from investigation results, as well as voice and data recordings from the “black boxes”.
(Fact: They are actually orange, not black, well, unless there was a lot of fire to scorch them, which is sometimes the case. Pro tip: You want to avoid crashes when the fuel tanks are still full.)
I’ve learned so much watching the series. If I ever end up in a plane full of screaming people, I will be the one cheerfully explaining to my seatmate that I think it’s a rudder issue because the plane suddenly lurched to the right before it began to plummet. “Could be the hydraulics, but more likely a mechanical issue in the tail. Either way, this is gonna be an exciting few minutes!”
I’ve seen design flaws, poor maintenance practices, icy wings, miscommunication with air traffic control, runway debris, sudden downdrafts, dozens of things that can go wrong. Somewhere in the 350,000 parts in a Boeing 737, there could be a counterfeit bolt, slowly rusting, threads stripped from time and wear. Once, someone forgot to put a whole row of screws back in a wing because it got missed on the mechanics’ shift change. And they use those damn Philips screws. Why can’t they use the superior Canadian-designed Robertson screws? Still, it would’ve been good to put them back in before we took off, eh?
Each time investigators find the cause, efforts are made to reduce the future risk of it happening again. That’s why air travel is the safest way to travel. They learn from their mistakes. It is definitely way safer than driving to the airport.
Of all the reasons for these disasters, there is one that occurs with alarming frequency.
Someone just wouldn’t listen.
Now, I’m a big believer in the value of experience. Some episodes have disasters averted by a calm, knowledgeable pilot who has trained for hundreds of hours to prepare for that moment. Need to land in the Hudson River? No problem, I got this.
Other times remind me of Gary Larson’s Far Side, with someone asking the pilot about a goat in the clouds. Buddy, you could have brought this up sooner.
Except, sometimes they do. Gently, cautious not to offend the captain, who is often older, male, more experienced, but unapproachable. Airlines try to avoid “green on green” pairings in the flight deck, where neither pilot has a lot of flying hours. Instead, there’s a hierarchy, with the guy on the driver’s side at the top. Is the plane off course? Maybe, but he got testy the last time the first officer questioned him. A withering look, a rebuke, a message that input is clearly not wanted.
Far too many cockpit voice recorders have proof of this problem. Someone, a first officer or flight engineer, is trying to navigate the uneven relationship. They know something bad is happening, but are so respectful of one individual’s experience that they hesitate, hint, suggest that maybe, perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble, the captain should consider…
…all while the aircraft proceeds towards an avoidable fate.
To be fair, sometimes there’s a valid reason the captain is not listening. “Spatial disorientation”, often caused by an inner ear problem, can fool your senses into not believing the reality happening around you. In other cases, there’s so much happening, a sudden descent, alarms blaring, stick shaking, and a human being overwhelmed, just not hearing the person yelling the answer. Those situations, while unfortunate, can be understood. When it happens, you need a confident and clearheaded co-pilot, to firmly say, “I have control”. Someone steps up and saves the day.
I like to think I could land the plane in a pinch, but I know my limitations. I’d much rather put my safety in the hands of the young first officer that I watched enter that flight deck. They didn’t suddenly walk into the job after leaving a summer camp counsellor gig. No, they’ve been trained, tested, and tried. They’ve passed physical and psychological assessments. They’re a subject matter expert of flying that particular kind of plane. They’ve got this.
Now that I’ve scared you off from flying (I’m only trying to scare the ones that might block me getting my upgrade), I want you to think about what this means to you.
What kind of Captain are you?
Not that I trust many of you to actually fly a plane, especially not MY plane, but you’re making decisions every damn day. Some of them affect other people. They’ve got a stake in your actions.
When an airplane is accelerating down the runway, there comes a moment called “V1”, or decision speed. It’s the last chance to abandon takeoff. What if the people around you know something is wrong and have a better idea? Are you approachable? Do you respect the knowledge and experience they have and listen to them, even if you believe in your abilities? Are they confident enough to grab the stick in an emergency and, if not, are you the reason they lack that confidence?
The airline industry is trying to make sure this happens safely, with a program called Crew Resource Management. Everyone knows their roles, everyone is respected, everyone can speak up if they see danger.
According to society, I’m a baby boomer, though I’ve never felt like one. Maybe it’s because my siblings were five, six, and seven years older than me. Maybe I just don’t like being lumped into a generation defined by others. Just try saying, “Ok, boomer” dismissively to me and see how that goes. I don’t pull that with the increasing number of generations behind me.
I can remember deferring to my older brother. He was an adult, I was a kid, even during an experience that happened in my early 20’s. We were at the farm in my father’s truck and Terry decided to drive through a field, for some unknown reason. I didn’t object, even though I knew it was a poorly thought-out idea.
I was likely still thinking that as the truck stopped and slowly started sinking. You see, I knew there was a spring in that field, and likely assumed he knew too. We were firmly stuck. Now what?
He went and got the tractor to pull the truck out. Ten minutes later, both the truck and tractor were mired in mud. An hour later, using scrap lumber we had to carry the length of the laneway, we managed to finally free both vehicles. Sweating and covered in muck, we silently drove home.
If I was driving the truck, I’d want my passenger to share what they know. “Are you sure you don’t want to drive a little more to the right, where the higher ground isn’t a swamp?”
Ultimately, someone is in charge, but seldom in it alone, unless they choose to be. You can choose a better approach, by listening to your crew, both older and younger. Let them know that them having your back is something you value, and they’ll help make sure you safely get where you’re going.
Dad to daughters. Daideo to Sprocket and Spark. Makes his wife laugh. Chief cook and bottle tilter. Proud owner of two sheds. Prefers looking through a lens, reading off paper, music over silence, movement over meditation. If there’s a hereafter, he hopes it has a waterfront view, nice lineup of cordless tools and a well-stocked workshop. Send feedback to: email@example.com