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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 8

March 27, 2015

During the course of the workday, one of the most pressing concerns of an airline pilot are the concepts of threats. What’s a threat?   Here are a few examples: Racing a line of thunderstorms to the runway. Or dealing with a mechanical anomaly that could be indicative of a greater problem. Or threading your aircraft around mountains shrouded in cloud. Or grappling with customers who boarded the aircraft with sound intentions, only to sour when the combination of ill fate, personality and perhaps alcohol has made them obstinate, cantankerous—or worse. Usually the latter threat is handled deftly on the ground—before departure, and typically by ground staff well versed in the art of removing troublemakers simply by stating “the aircraft isn’t moving until you leave”. Works like a charm.

All of these hazards require our attention. Years of experience in the pursuit of my career have proven that the occurrences of most threats are low. They can be minimized but they cannot be completely eliminated. The very act of strapping onto an eighty-ton machine filled with 3,000 gallons of jet fuel and then launching one’s self at fatal airspeeds and altitudes has in itself formidable risk. This risk can and must be minimized. That is where tact becomes important.

My airline has two processes in place for flight crews to use in order to combat these threats. One process is called Threat/Error Management. The other is called Crew Resource Management. No, these are not classes taught at some business school somewhere. I do not have a collegiate degree in either. But I am reasonably educated in these nonetheless, so I may use these appropriately.

These processes did not occur with the advent of commercial air travel. Rather, they are borne from the smoldering wrecks of shattered aircraft, spilt blood and ruined lives. Aircraft accidents seem to have many disparate causes, but deep beneath the surface, most do have a common thread: human error. Therefore, it is important for a pilot to pay close attention to what tends to be the weakest link in what accident investigators call the “error chain”—people. People can make mistakes. People can cause trouble just because, well, they are human.

Threat/Error Management (T/EM) is an active filter our pilots use to analyze all of our threats and actions done in the course of our duties of flying airplanes. Crew Resource Management (CRM) is the ‘tact’ that all of our pilots and flight attendants try to use.

I’ve been an airline pilot now for over 20 years. During that time, I have sat through many, many hours of classroom discussions about CRM, about perceiving threats and how to handle them. Even prior to my flying career, I would study old accident reports in an attempt to familiarize myself with any causes that might have been quelled with effective use of CRM. I find the topic fascinating.

Often, to help underscore the discussion, a classroom instructor might use a prior accident to help illuminate a certain thorny issue. But other than the fallout from 9/11 (which was understandably extensive), rarely are passenger issues discussed.

Today, on this bright morning here in Kenai, we have passenger issues. I am now being asked to assess our predicament by John, our Captain.

The very fact that John has asked me my opinion means he has paid attention to the T/EM and CRM courses our company has presented. And although we were strangers to each other until just yesterday—and have only flown one flight leg together—John knows that I have a wide breadth of experience. My opinions are valid. He knows that I know this, and I appreciate it.

And right now I know the exchange rate for my two cents is pretty high. John, Logan, Kelly, Heath and Joann each await my reply.

I look down at my boots, then off towards the light streaming in from the opened passenger door. Beyond this portal, still inside the diminutive airport terminal await our passengers anxiously. They have now been marooned in Kenai with us for over 15 hours.

I deeply want to get our customers to Anchorage. I know full well that revenue from their airfare pays my salary. In this day and age, the passage from one city to another via airliner is so commonplace, so routine, so safe—that anything other than swift passage is downright shocking. I also remember that half of our customers just spent the night sleeping on the terminal floor.

I cough slightly and swallow so I may be clearly heard. All of my training, reading, research and experience culminate in my utterance. “I am not comfortable either.”

Without me, John cannot go anywhere. This 737, like all Boeing 737s, requires two pilots to fly. John cannot order me to fly. Although the pecking order established in commercial aviation requires me, the First Officer, to report to the Captain, I am not obliged to blindly follow his every wish. He cannot make me fly if I don’t think it’s a good idea to do so.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons two pilots are required in cockpits of all large commercial aircraft. These ‘checks and balances’ between two skilled professionals are robust and tend to catch all threats with great success and positive outcomes.

John and I look at each other in silence for just a second. Processing what I’ve said, he lowers his hands, still clutching the flight’s paperwork and speaks. “Okay, so what do you think we should do?”

A fine question. In other words, what options do I think we have for getting our customers safely to Anchorage today. I rattle off one as a review.

“Well, getting TSA security down here from Anchorage would be the best. But as we all know, that hasn’t happened thus far. And from what we know, it won’t happen any time soon.” I say flatly. “So that’s out.” Logan and Becky nod their heads in assent.

“So what I think is the least risk scenario for everyone is simple,” I continue. “Just have the company charter three buses and drive everyone up to Anchorage. And we will just fly the airplane empty up there. Easy and done.”

Now Joann and Heath nod their heads. Logan follows with a strong “Yeah! How difficult could that be?”

I’m hoping my solution is as effortless to do as it seems.

Ever calm and unflustered, John raises the rolled up flight plan to his mouth in contemplation. “I have no idea. But one of the station people here said it’s about a three and a half hour drive from here to Anchorage. And I don’t know if any buses are available here.” He lowers his arm, leans against the first class seat and turns to me.

“You really think there’s a threat here?” His eyebrows are raised as if to say, “I’m surprised that you would think so.”

I don’t take his question as an affront because he’s using his CRM skills, too. He’s challenging me. During difficult times, difficult questions need to be asked. These are challenges.

“I do.” My voice is clear and even. “And frankly the threat is not to you or me, the threat is to you guys.” I hold up my hand and point at our flight attendants.

“You guys are the ones that will have to deal with any unruly passengers. We’ve got an armored, locked door to hide behind.”

I don’t say this to brag. It’s just the fact of the matter.

Ultimately, if our flight attendants are not safe, neither are any of our passengers.

Echoing a passage from the Security chapter of our Flight Operations Manual, I finish making my point. “There’s no ground security coordinator in place here in Kenai. We are it. And we are not equipped to do this job.” My head moves from side to side.

Again, several seconds of silence. John turns back to Logan and shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll call our dispatcher back and see what the company has to say.”

There is a faint but unmistakable tone of resignation in his voice. Still fully dressed for the cold air, John steps past me and back out of the airplane towards the terminal building.

Once inside, John will dial the dispatcher assigned to our flight on the telephone. He will then describe to him what has just been discussed among his crew. Our dispatcher, knowing he has no authority in matters such as this, will then transfer John to the Flight Operations Duty Manager (FODM). Unlike our dispatchers, each FODM is a captain-qualified pilot. Each FODM works a 12-hour shift at our Network Operations Center (NOC). Each is carefully chosen and specially trained for this position.  Operationally speaking, FODMs put out fires.

One of the primary duties of the FODM is fielding calls from pilots systemwide with all kinds of operational issues. These FODMs have great resources at their disposal, be it customer service, dispatch supervisors, flight attendant supervisors or even corporate security supervisors. Each of these individuals sits at desks literally right next to each other in the NOC. Other subject experts on all manner of airline related issues are available too, another telephone call away.

Then and there, John and the FODM will discuss the situation, Captain to Captain.

I suddenly feel a surge of energy. I have put my foot down with my decision. We are stuck in Kenai. Knowing that my analysis of our situation will be scrutinized by every aforementioned person in the NOC—and perhaps even people above them within our airline—I retreat to my seat in the cockpit, subconsciously going there because that’s where I’m most at home.  I feel safest here.

Logan follows me. He’s got one more question. “Do you think we’re going to get fired for this?”

Just then, I see John exit the terminal building and briskly walk towards our plane.

I smile wanly.  “I guess we’ll know in a minute when John gets back here.”

Neither of us know the answer to this question.  (To be continued.)

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One Comment
  1. Paula permalink

    Wow can’t wait for more of the story.

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