CEO of the Cockpit #2:
Training Day

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:


Ice 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 airlinersfor over twenty years now and haven’t known one druggie. I’ve known a fewdrinkers though and the ones with problems could all have been discoveredwithout 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 thing.

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 issue.”

“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 me!”

Very good point, Fred. It brings up another thing I think is wrong with flight training.

“Gawd” Is Invoked As Happy Hour Draws To AClose …

“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 shot.

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 department.”

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.