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Bright golden wings, heavy metal obligations

February 1, 2013

With little pageantry and only the slightest touch of flourish, I was handed two sets of golden metal wings today.  Both are to adorn my ‘new’ uniform.  One is larger than the other–set to take its’ place atop my head affixed to my regulation black and gold First Officer’s hat.  The other set of wings will be pinned carefully to my uniform suit jacket.

For as long as aviators have plied the skies, this symbol of flight–usually a stylized interpretation of bird’s wings–has been worn with pride by airmen the world over.  Some are woven from fine thread, others die-cast then plated in precious metal to make them gleam.  Pilots work long and hard for them, amassing many, many hours of careful, cautious flight experience to justify them being pinned proudly to one’s breast by a thankful country or air carrier.  They are usually bestowed with honor befitting a veteran who has been tested in fields distant and near, and done so with due regard and aplomb.  They are never made of plastic.

The brief ritual was carried out as an aside today.  No forewarning, no buildup, no glamour.  Just a few words spoken by the facility Director of Training to our class in between dry discussions of airline policy and procedure.  A recitation of our class roster, first names only, made each of us rise to trade a firm handshake for these prototypical totems of effort, accomplishment and care.  My set will join 5 others I have collected over the lengthening span of my professional career.

After class resumed, I stared at them in front of me at my table.  The subject matter being displayed on the classroom wall was starkly juxtaposed with the polished metal I had just been handed.  An image of an aircraft, its’ gray metal fuselage twisted and bent, scorched by fire and ripped open by violent collision with concrete stanchions was clearly displayed.  The interior of the craft was easily visible.  Seats, bare to the elements, sat empty.  Most of their occupants had hurriedly abandoned them in their haste to escape the conflagration.  Some unfortunately had not, and died there.

Just why this shattered aircraft was sitting there, down an embankment off the far end of a long runway and not nuzzled up to a nearby terminal building where it belonged, was our topic of discussion.  It lay there because the pilots screwed up.  Badly.  Horribly.

In the airline industry we call it ‘Crew Resource Management’ (CRM).  It’s the practice of using what crews have–resources–in the most effective manner.  ‘Managing’ them.  Our equipment, techniques, skills, practices–and how we apply them dovetail with those of us with whom we work.  Together.  Most airline pilots are quite adept at this unique blend of art and science.  We have to be.  Although the news media love to pounce on any remotely relevant incident befalling any airplane, the US commercial airline safety record remains the world’s finest.  We are obligated to be 100% every time.  We cannot screw up.

Luckily, our safety chronicles bear witness to this.

Still, it continues to be chilling for me to sit and listen to the sounds of the cockpit voice recorder as it plays back the clipped, tense, passionate final words of a doomed aircrew.  I have been handed similar predicaments thus far in my career.  I have rested my palms on many of the same yokes of these aircraft while dodging thunderstorms or wrestling with crosswinds along a slippery runway.  I have had many of the same interpersonal clashes with overbearing or ineffectual crewmembers.

In each of these accident recaps that we cover in these essential CRM classes, I can see myself.  I can see those insidious but seemingly innocuous distractions.  I can hear those plaintive calls of “Traffic 12 o’clock, less than a mile.”  I can feel those shudders of the airframe as the wings shrug off the last vestiges of lift and gracelessly succumb to gravity’s pull.  I can taste that dry, metallic fear that each pilot must have tasted as the awful truth of what their carelessness, inattention or neglect has served to them.

Because I’m human.

What’s humbling is the fact that ‘human error’–or specifically pilot error, remains the leading cause of aircraft calamity.  And there, but by the grace of God, we go…golden wings affixed to sharply dressed, proud human pilots.  Strapped to cold, heavy, unforgiving metal.  I won’t forget this.  That’s why they give us these wings.  It’s why we earn them.

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3 Comments
  1. Pretty sweet! I’d fly with you anytime.

  2. How did I miss this one? Gorgeous imagery (as always)… Congratulations and blue skies to you, my friend. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on totallytawn and commented:
    At the risk of exposing my own writing as shoddy and inferior, I needed to share this post with you.

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