I have often written about pilots/aviators, always with the utmost honesty; I always will as I have enormous respect for their work and because every day they are faced with a “decisive moment”. I could talk of other professions that also deserve a profound respect but not in vain have I spent my life amongst these airlines and people.
I have known pilots who have been born to fly and I have occasionally known those who have not, although someone once said “I prefer to be an old pilot than a good pilot”. It is true that some pilots have been “heroes of the skies” at some point.
But the truth now is that it is not made up of heroes, but professional men.
In the short history of air safety, the changing point came to be in the 1950’s, with the incorporation of reactor aeroplanes, that were much more reliable and easier to fly in comparison with the plunger engine that preceded them.
With the incorporation of the reactor aircraft the number of accidents due to mechanical errors or atmospheric conditions were greatly reduced. There was a dramatic change and improvement in air safety which opened the door to air travel as we know it today.
At the end of 1970, a decision was made that would improve safety on board to standards we know today. A small team of investigators from a NASA centre in Mountain View, California, started – with a view to safety – a systematic evaluation of the pilot-plane relationship.
One of the members of the team was an investigative psychologist and young private pilot by the name of John Lauber. This young man spent years observing operations “in situ” or perhaps we should say both flying as a passenger and in the cockpit. The first thing that Lauber found was a culture dominated by the authoritarian captains; old reactionaries who were against the idea of working as a team, who did not allow interference from any of their colleagues.
In the airline Pan Am, these captains were known as “Clipper Skippers” in a clear reference to the pilots of the hydroplanes of the 1930’s. NASA spoke to Pan Am to lend them a “flight simulator” – something unknown to some of them.
With this simulator, different types of breakdowns or difficulties during the flight could be simulated. The flight simulator was created by Hugh Patrick Rufell Smith, a modest British born doctor who died a few years later but is reknowned nowadays for having reformed the global operations of airlines, saving numerous human lives.
John Lauber was very much involved in this process of radical change of what is today known as safety on board. Nowadays flight simulators are a fundamental tool for pilots and safety, spread around the whole world – the only bad thing about them is the quality of their coffee which is barely drinkable!
John Lauber, in order to achieve the fundamental tool which was and is to work as a team, discuss situations and improve procedures, coined the phrase C.R.M. which means resource management. Teamwork is more important in aviation than the ability of one of the crew members. Today the First Officers manage or handle the aircraft and are free to express their opinions and consult the Captains. Therefore the pilots in control delegate functions, often ask for advice or simply communicate their plans to the crew.
Many ask the question, do they need to know what a C.R.M. is. When it is nothing more than the principle of many other programmes laid down by civil aviation authorities, airlines and manufacturers.
It has not been easy reaching this high level of safety on board. One has to bear in mind that the way has not been without its difficulties. The accepting of all the procedures has been difficult in some countries or regions in the world; for example in Asia where C.R.M. is or was against the traditions of the hierarchy and respect for elders.
A notorious case was the accident of a Korean Air Boeing 747. During the landing at Guam, the captain made the decision to descend prematurely and crash on a dark night. Neither the First Official nor the flight mechanic passed on their concerns to the pilot in charge, although both were aware that the operation was incorrect and would end in tragedy, with the loss of 228 lives.
In summing up, in the life of every man there is always a decisive moment and probably his future life is written in that instant.
Defending this profession, because probably only the surgeon and the pilot or pilots deal with the fine line which opens and closes the subtle border between life and death with such intensity and as many times during their lifetimes.
Fortunately nowadays we no longer have “Clipper Skippers”; we have professionals with a high level of preparation, who face difficulties as a team, although sometimes the high technology cockpits in the aircraft can create more than one problem.
They no longer have to be arrogant to be professional.