You're aboard a commercial flight and the weather at your destination airport is ... let's say challenging. As your thoughts drift to the flight crew seated ahead of the newly installed security door, what crosses your mind first:
January 12, 2002
tinkled in glasses. Large screen TVs blared and you could hear the subtle
sounds of country music wafting over the sour smell of warm beer and tattered
dreams. I was at the bar in the layover motel once again.
Many people suppose that airline pilots are drug-crazed loonies; otherwise,
why would we be made to pee into bottles every few months to prove that we
aren't? For public safety it seems that any rollback of the Bill of Rights to
achieve some sort of warm, fuzzy, secure feeling is all right with everybody
unless the illegal search is happening to him or her.
The whole drug-testing thing is silly, really. I have been flying airliners
for over twenty years now and haven't known one druggie. I've known a few
drinkers though and the ones with problems could all have been discovered
without trashing the Constitution.
Talking To Oneself In A Bar Bad Layover Technique?
"Who are you talking to?" asked Fred, this week's version of a
co-pilot. He had come over with some "layover chow," cold popcorn in
a wicker basket. I was surprised he could hear my muttering over the din of
that most terrible of music forms Holiday Inn Disco.
Nobody in particular. I was just practicing for my next talk at Recurrent
Training. You know just before lunch when the Cockpit Resource Management
teacher asks if anybody has anything to say? I always like to have something
prepared. The instructors never actually think anybody will waste precious
lunch time with a diatribe and I just love getting into their little minds. It
is kind of like kicking a tied-up dog tantalizing at first, but sickening
in the long run. Some of our more union-oriented pilots call CRM instructors
"Hitler Youth" because they always spout the company line,
especially at contract negotiation time. I say this is untrue and unfair to
the Hitler Youth, who really were brainwashed by true evil and were better
dressers to boot.
Can We Talk?
"So, you think a lot of Cockpit Resource Management?"
I do indeed, Fred. For decades upon decades we airline types were well-known for the trait of not being able to communicate with each other in a
friendly, PC manner. I can remember when I was a young, brown-haired flight
engineer on the 727 that many times it would be days before the captain would
even speak to me. Do you know what I called that?
"What?" asked Fred.
A wonderful, wonderful thing! There were some captains back then that
wouldn't speak a word to you and you never had to find out all about them.
Their rotten kids, their failing marriage and their flaccid love life stayed
where it belonged unknown. There is nothing wrong with a little silence in
the cockpit, Fred ...
"Then why don't you ever shut the hell up?"
A very good point. Tomorrow morning, as we fire up the sub sonic people
mover and hit the dusty trail, I promise to remain as silent as a church
mouse. As lacking in interesting conversation as an airline CEO. As quiet as a
Democrat on Demerol ...
The Company Man Buys The World A Coke
"Except for the fact that pilots talk to each other more," chimed
in our newest bar companion, a pilot whom I will fondly call the "company
man" who had just come over from ordering a diet cola. He was a little
late coming down because he had to fit in his daily run and call the wife.
"What do you have against CRM?"
Fred muttered, "I wish you hadn't asked him that."
I have nothing against CRM as a concept. I have a lot of trouble when it
becomes a religion. Originally, Cockpit Resource Management was brought in
because accident investigators kept discovering that pilots weren't
communicating with each other properly. For example, there was a DC-8 accident
where the aircraft was allowed to run out of gas and crash even though the
flight engineer kept mentioning their critical fuel state.
"Why, oh why couldn't the engineer find his 'positive place'
and speak up strongly to the captain?" They kept asking themselves. The
conclusion they reached in this and many other examples was that the
non-communicating pilots in question were not, in fact, too docile to live.
They just lacked millions of dollars in additional training! Before you could
say "federal grant," hundreds of PhDs that had hitherto been locked
away (quite properly) in their colleges came scurrying out from under the ivy
walls like little cockroaches wearing blazers with leather elbows.
What's "Heuristics" Got To Do With It?
Once there were no experts on Cockpit Resource Management. Then, wave a
little money around and you can't swing a dead cat by its tail without hitting
at least a dozen of them. People with doctorates in whatever were all over the
concept. They came to our offices via the videotaped lecture and told us we
needed to learn new words like "heuristics" if we ever wanted to
avoid crashing and burning.
Suddenly, recurrent training changed from learning a little about your
aircraft and how it operates to learning how to relate to each other in a more
efficient manner. We sat around round tables, wearing insipid nametags playing
games like "camel dealer" and figuring out the quickest way to put
together nuts and bolts before the other team.
Suddenly, simulator instructors, who a year ago wouldn't cross the street
to pee on you if you were on fire, were pretending to be interested in you and
yours. I'm not making this up. I once looked at an instructor's notes on the
table in the simulator briefing room. It contained a list that said: "Get
to know the guys ... wives? kids? pets?" While I have no problem getting
to know any instructor better, if they have to make up a list to pretend to
like me, I'd just as soon get right to discussions about non-precision
approaches and V1 cuts.
"I can't believe you are against CRM," said the company man.
"It looks to me like the whole thing was invented to deal with pilots
just like you."
I know this whole disagreeing with the company thing is new and frightening
to you, so I'll speak slowly and use smaller words. And, by the way, I totally
respect where you are coming from (dude). Years ago I was less jaded and
cynical and was known to do a marketing call or two myself, as well as other
company-oriented things. I've got nothing against "company men." I
just found I can't do it any more. Please believe me when I say that any
ridicule I throw your way is nothing personal it is just so fun and easy
that I can't resist.
Okay, What Does The CEO Really Think?
Actually, I am not against CRM in the least. As a matter of fact, I could
list at least a half-dozen instances when it saved me from an FAA violation
or, worse yet, an NTSB investigation. CRM has many wonderful things to teach
us. For example, before CRM came along it was a rare thing in a 727 cockpit
for a before-start checklist to actually be read. Most checklists in most
airline cockpits were recited from memory, if they were run at all.
If you doubt this, you probably weren't around when the people in flight
training used to encourage us to memorize large portions, if not all, the
steps in many abnormal and emergency checklists. Then, of course, if you blew
the steps during a checkride, they would yell at you for not reading the
CRM changed many things for the better. Co-pilots and engineers were
encouraged to speak up if they saw anything amiss. Entire crews were told
about the effects of fatigue on performance. Not that fatigue has received
anything but lip service from airline management or the government ...
"Now, that's just not true," interjected the company man.
"We have been working very hard to help the flight crews with the fatigue
"Do you want me to tell him?" asked Fred.
Sure, go ahead.
"I've done a little bid sheet survey," Fred said. "If the company
is so all-fired concerned about pilot fatigue, how come almost all of our
rotations (a rotation is basically a trip) have days with thirteen hours of
duty on them after a short layover? How many other jobs expect people to be
mentally sharp after being awake for over twenty hours?"
"Surgeons do it all the time," said the company man.
That is true, I said. Of course, even your most gifted and famous surgeon
can only kill one person at a time and has the chance to walk away if things
get too dicey. When I fly tomorrow, I'll have the potential of killing
hundreds and, at 3 a.m. in a blizzard, there is no way to step back for a
breather during a CAT IIIb approach to minimums.
The CEO Praises Airline Management
To give the company its due, it never second-guesses a crew that says they
are too tired to function. If you are on a trip and for any reason it gets to
be "just too much," you can get off no questions asked. Coming
from a general aviation background where the opposite is true, I can tell you
that I really appreciate the fact that, when it comes to safety, the company
will back a captain.
My complaint against the CRM thing is that it has gone from being a tool in
a well-stocked toolbox to being a spiritual, religious thing. For example, in
this conversation I've made fun of company men, doctors, airline executives,
Democrats on drugs and dead cats. What do you think would generate the most
hate mail if this conversation (God forbid) were ever put in print?
The CRM Criticism, Of Course
Pilots use CRM as a sort of crucifix. See trouble a' brewin'? Just wave
your good old CRM at it and it'll shrink like Bella Legosi in a sunbeam.
Pilots use CRM as a glass of water they can throw at the bad flying witch of
the west. Yell a few words like "heuristics" at that bad old dame
and she'll be melting, melting.
The problem, of course, is that CRM won't solve anything if you don't fly
the plane correctly. No amount of relating to one another will keep your
aircraft "greasy side down" if you get your airspeed too slow after
an engine failure. You can communicate your brains out with each other when
you lose your second digital flight guidance computer on an MD-88, but if you
don't have enough systems knowledge to override the yaw damper you are gonna
have some serious control problems.
We have, quite rightly, spent a lot of time with CRM, but we have done so
at the expense of basic systems knowledge. Where we used to spend a couple of
days looking at color charts of fuel systems and electrical schematics, we now
spend about half a day. As a matter of fact, it was only recently that
aircraft control was a hot button issue. We now practice "upset
recovery" in the sim what general aviation jocks call "unusual
attitude recovery." We are finally getting back to practicing things in
the simulator that could actually kill us, but we are still spending at least
a half a full sim session with a CRM exercise called "line oriented
flight training." This is a sort of normal flight where only one thing
goes wrong in real time. Good practice if you never actually fly the line
where a real problem comes up, on average, once a leg anyway, but for line
guys and gals that fly about eighty hours a month it is a two-hour snooze.
"I like LOFT checks" intoned Fred, who now had his head on the
table after beer number two. "They are comforting for one thing and keep
us out of trouble for another. The quicker I can get out of recurrent with a 'pass' instead of a
'fail' the better off I am. If they
want to use a few hours for a no-jeopardy ride that is just fine with
Very good point, Fred. It brings up another thing I think is wrong with
"Gawd" Is Invoked As Happy Hour Draws To A
"Oh Gawd ..." Fred was moaning now as he looked to the company man
for release from my incessant bitching and preaching.
Flight training, at least in the airlines, isn't really about training
anymore (if it ever was). It is about passing tests and hoping against hope
that you won't lose your job or the airline won't lose its certificate.
Because of this attitude, we pilots are never allowed to face
"multiple abnormals" (meaning more than one problem at a time) even
though most abnormals in the real world come in multiples. We always follow a
very strict syllabus with almost no room for additional learning because: one,
it is very expensive to have an airline pilot in training and two, nobody
wants to expose themselves to learning new things if they will be held
accountable for it on some sort of test.
The company man was getting up from his seat after looking at his big heavy
watch. It looked like Fred was about to go with him so I gave them my final
The CEO Makes A Proposal
Gentlemen, here is what I propose we do in airline flight training. Every
other year the company should give us the money they would have spent on our
recurrent training say, seven thousand dollars. We then could go out and
purchase our own training. That training could be anything relating to our
jobs as airline pilots.
One year I might purchase an aerobatics course. You want to talk about
"unusual attitude training?" How cool would it be to do it in a
Pitts instead of a box on stilts? Next, I might take an ocean survival course.
Nice to know stuff if you fly international. Maybe a weapons course next, or
perhaps a real first-aid course.
The choices of subjects that would be useful to an airline pilot are almost
limitless. You wouldn't expect James Bond to go to secret agent school and
cover the same subjects every year would you? How do you think he learned how
to downhill ski while firing a machine gun? How did he learn to fly a hang
glider with a rocket motor on it? By taking a plethora of educational courses.
Aren't we at least as cool as 007? Shouldn't we be as well-trained?
"Personally," said the company man, "I think you need some
sort of medical help. How would the company know you weren't wasting its
money? If we used your plan, there would have to be a way for the company to
account for its outlay of cash."
After this training, you would be required to write a two-page report
detailing what you learned. Or, as a CRM exercise, you could go to your local
CRM instructor and have a "nice talk" about it.
You would learn something useful, the company would get something valuable
for its money and your passengers would be a little bit safer. The only people
missing out would be the Feds because they would be denied a checkride.
Why It Won't Work
"Nice dream, but it won't work," said Fred as he brushed the
popcorn dust off of his lap. "Not only would your idea put half of flight
training out of work, it would also idle dozens of CRM instructors, flight
training supervisors and program managers, not to mention designated
examiners. This would mean that these people would have to leave the steep-turn academy and fly in the real world full-time. Like any large bureaucracy,
change, even if it is good change, engenders fear. It just won't happen
because there are way too many comfortable nests in the training
It is a real shame, but you are right on the money, Fred. Even though every
person in the flight training department could probably fly rings around yours
truly, and even though they are far smarter and more talented than me, I just
don't see many of them giving up the training life to hang out in Holiday Inn
bars like us. Forget I said anything ... Who's up for some dinner?
| With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.