Pilots are not always perfect

Monday, 22 September, 2014

In 1979, a new approach to flying passenger planes was brainstormed in San Francisco. It was called Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), a term since expanded to stand for Crew Resource Management. The idea was to create a less hierarchical cockpit culture where co-pilots were expected to give their opinions and question their captains if they saw mistakes being made. That’s the background to The Human Factor by William Langewiesche in Vanity Fair. It’s a gripping, somewhat terrifying exploration of the Air France Flight 447 crash in 2009, which killed 228 people. Snippet:

The tenets of C.R.M., which emerged from the United States, fit naturally into the cultures of Anglo-Saxon countries. Acceptance has been more difficult in certain Asian countries, where C.R.M. goes against the traditions of hierarchy and respect for elders. A notorious case was the 1997 crash of a Korean Air Boeing 747 that hit a hillside on a black night, while on approach to Guam, after a venerated captain descended prematurely and neither the co-pilot nor the flight engineer emphatically raised concerns, though both men knew the captain was getting things wrong. In the impact 228 people died. Similar social dynamics have been implicated in other Asian accidents.

And Air France? As judged from the cockpit management on display in Flight 447 before it went down, NASA’s egalitarian discipline has devolved within the airline into a self-indulgent style of flying in which co-pilots address the captain using the informal ‘tu’ but some captains feel entitled to do whatever they like. The sense of entitlement does not occur in a void. It can be placed in the context of a proud country that has become increasingly insecure. A senior executive at Airbus mentioned to me that in Britain and the United States the elites do not become airline pilots, whereas in France, as in less developed countries, they still do. This makes them difficult to manage. Bernard Ziegler, the visionary French test pilot and engineer behind the Airbus design, once said to me, ‘First you have to understand the mentality.’

I said, ‘Do you really think they are so arrogant?’

He said, ‘Some, yes. And they have the flaw of being too well paid.’

‘So there must be no problem in the United States.’

But Ziegler was serious. He said, ‘Second, the union’s position is that pilots are always perfect. Working pilots are perfect, and dead pilots are, too.’

William Langewiesche is the author of the splendid American Ground and his reportage is consistently convincing.

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  1. Larry May says:

    In connection with flying, Langewiesche’s article from a few years ago is still very much worth reading: