‘Just sayings…’ Building pilots’ resilience in aviation
Over the years, one picks up many pearls of wisdom that shape our rapport with aviation : They could be gems offered by other pilots; they may come from something you read, perhaps from another’s own experience; or events that you experience, yourself, along the way.
In recent discussion, topics such as decision-making, threat and error management and embracing long-established standard operating procedures (SOPs) and cockpit resource management (CRM) have been floated past me. These essential yet sometimes intangible subjects can perhaps be included under the generic title, ‘building resilience’. It seems appropriate, therefore, to share some of the ‘HOW’ to achieve some basic understanding of all this by recalling some ‘pearls’ that made themselves known to me along the way, since 1965.
This is the seventh article in a planned occasional series, sharing some most memorable and treasured experiences. This one is another from my own career : We do plan to feature other highly esteemed pilot friends and colleagues, who are only too willing to share their collective aviation experience. The crucial lessons that we learned along the way are just as valid today. They contribute, in no small way, to that intangible but essential quality known in aviation as ‘airmanship’.
Where possible, I shall acknowledge the sources of this collection of acquired wisdom that has served me well, not only in aviation, but in everyday life, as well. I commend it, especially, to inspire pilots just starting out. So, in no particular order:
In 1965, my first flight instructor explained, “There is no excuse for a taxying accident.” He was so right.
Not much later, my Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) offered some sage advice: “When you’ve flown 100 hours, you’ll think you know it all; when you’ve gained 200 hours, you’ll know you know it all; and when you’ve reached 2000 hours, you’ll know you’ll never know it all!’ Well, even after 24,500 hours and 56 years exposure, I still feel like I just scratched the surface.
My CFI was the legendary ‘Jock’ Garden and he added this little gem after an assessment flight, when I had completed my first 3 hours of instrument flight training:
“David, there are very few born instrument pilots – and you are not one of them!” As an 18-yo, that was somewhat deflating, but again, he was right: I really had to work at it.
Around 22 years later, in 1987, I was by now a (line) training captain and Jock was a passenger on my Trans-Australia Airlines’ (TAA) DC-9-30, flying from Melbourne to Adelaide and made it known that he was ‘down the back’. Naturally, I invited him up the flight deck for a quick chat (this was long before ‘9-11‘) and he remained with us for our descent and landing. After shutdown, I reminded him of his 1965 assessment of my instrument flying skills:
“Well”, he said, with a broad grin, “it must have worked. Look where you are, now!”
There are some self-explanatory and sobering oldies and goodies, like, “The runway behind you, like the altitude above you and the fuel remaining in the tanker, are of no further use to you“, which do stimulate sound flight planning.
Upon my timely retirement from Qantas Airways Ltd, in February 2010, in a note of farewell published in the company’s flight ops newsletter, I summarised the ‘BIG 4’, of all the lessons I learned since 1965, including 40 years of airline flying:
Know when to go sick -Are you fit to fly? This includes personal issues, as well as medical; seek support and/or professional help;
Know when to go around – Don’t succumb to ‘press-on-itis’ – we rarely get a good landing off a bad approach;
Know when to divert or to turn back – If VFR-limited, you cannot teach yourself to fly on instruments in the last 30 seconds of your life; and
Know when to go – Be self-aware of your own limitations and bow out gracefully, before having to be reminded by others, or failing that last, one-too-many simulator or route checks.
In the second article in this series, ‘The best advice I was ever offered : from the best pilot I ever flew with’, published 7 July 2020, I referred, primarily, to Captain Geoff Lushey, who advised me, back in 1970, “It doesn’t matter when something goes wrong – What matters is what you do about it!‘. The same article includes a quotable quote from Captain Col Tiller, another very intelligent and perceptive TAA pilot. He told our cohort of inductees to TAA, earlier that same year, “When you pass a check, it only means you’ve been operating safely for the last 6 months: it has no bearing, whatsoever, on the next 6. On the other hand, if you fail a check, you haven’t just had a bad day: you’ve been unsafe for the last 6 months!” I proved him dead right: read the article (from the link above, or the JF News App), for the details!
In 1971, as a 23-yo and just one year into my airline career with TAA, I had the opportunity to convert from the Fokker F27 Friendship to the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30, my first jet. We completed the engineering and full-flight simulator courses in Melbourne, but the airline was still taking delivery of the type and couldn’t spare any aircraft off-line, for training purposes. We had, instead, the privilege of completing the 10-hour base flying component of the conversion with Hawaiian Airlines, based in Honolulu. (A tough gig, but someone had to do it!). My instructor was Captain Howard Phillips, Hawaiian’s most senior pilot and instructor. In just 2 years, I had leapt from flying a Cessna 337 with a maximum take-off weight of 4300lbs/1950kg, to the F27 at 43,500lb/19,731kgs and now the DC-9 at 100,000lbs/45,360kg. They were big steps.
I explained how I’d struggled a bit, initially, in the DC-9 simulator, trying not to over-control with aileron and rudder on asymmetric take-offs (simulated engine failures and fires). He responded, “Oh, a lot of our guys do that, too and you know what I tell ’em? I tell ’em to hold that ‘pole‘ (meaning all of the flight controls) like you’re tryin’ to milk a mouse (meaning very, very gently)!” Some homespun philosophy, perhaps, but it conveyed the message – and it sure works!
Captain Howard Phillips had another gem, too; perfect for those occasions when you realise your ‘mental-workload-required‘ is starting to exceed your ‘brain-power-available‘: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s sometimes real (sic) difficult to remember that your initial aim was to drain the swamp!”
As a kid, I recall Walt Disney hosting a TV episode of Disneyland and quoting Davy Crockett – the legendary US Frontiersman & Congressman. According to Disney, Crockett’s motto was, ‘Be sure you’re right – and then go ahead.’
Interestingly, when TAA introduced their initial and pioneering version of CRM, (which they termed Aircrew Team Management (ATM) in 1984, part of our training involved a problem-solving model known by its acronym, ‘S-A-D-I-E‘. The initials stood for the following steps and they expand on Davy Crockett’s motto:
Share the information available;
Analyse the information;
Develop a solution;
Implement the solution;
Evaluate the solution.
If the solution is not successful, repeat the last 3 steps, several times if necessary.
Along the way, in simulator training and licence checks, I learned the essential quality of sometimes ‘sitting on my hands’: in other words, not acting impulsively or precipitously. When suffering the loss of power or thrust, in a twin-engine airplane, it’s obviously vital NOT to shut down the wrong engine: it gets very quiet, very quickly! And, sadly, it has been done many times, with fatal consequences. The point is beautifully illustrated by a piece I read once, from a USAF test pilot:
“When something does go wrong in an airplane, the very first thing I do is to start a stopwatch; it meets two fundamental human requirements:
It satisfies the intuitive urgency within us to do something immediately; and
It’s relatively harmless!“
In the airline environment and, I dare say, in the GA and military sectors, too, commercial and operational factors often place great pressure on pilots-in-command, to ‘get going’, often against their better judgment. When that pressure occurs, it’s vital to make a deliberate effort to slow down, ‘start that stopwatch’ and carefully apply the effective ‘S-A-D-I-E’ model.
A dispatch officer or company manager probably doesn’t have the full picture that you do. Remember that, when things go wrong, after departure, the responsibility for ‘everything’ rests with the pilot in command. Younger and less experienced commanders are vulnerable to these pressures and it shows, especially to the highly professional cabin service managers (CSMs) and flight attendants, with whom we share our responsibilities and duties of care for our passengers. I was once complimented and asked by one of our most professional CSMs, of 30+ years’ experience: “How do you stay so even, every time we fly with you? We always know it will be safe, professional and fun working with you.”
I hadn’t ever thought consciously about that, but I thanked her and was somehow able to summon the following response:
“When I go flying, I have 4 priorities:
The safety of the airplane and my crew;
The security and comfort of my passengers;
Meeting the regulations and requirements of the government’s licensing authority; and finally,
Meeting the requirements of my employer.”
Now, it may seem odd, placing the Company last, but I figured that if I satisfied the first three priorities, my employer should have no cause for complaint – and, importantly, it placed that last element in its proper perspective:
‘OK, we’ve satisfied the first 3, now how can we best address that commercial element?’
Thinking further on this topic, later, I realised that I’d probably done this, subconsciously, ever since completing my first solo, as a 17-yo, way back in 1965; and my ‘second solo’ as a 34-yo, newly-minted F27 captain, in 1981.
It may also explain why professional pilots don’t necessarily feel the weight of responsibility for the safety of 36 or 174 or 400+ passengers. We would operate a freighter flight or ferry an empty airplane exactly the same way as if we had a full complement of fare-paying passengers.
Lesser Pressures: The ‘storm in the teacup’
In aviation, as in life, there are often some employment or other less important pressures that, while not operational, can nevertheless cause us stress and even grief to a disproportionate degree.
A beautiful solution was suggested to me by B747-400 Captain and Pilot Association President, Graeme Cant, back in 1993, when he offered the following:
‘When a storm blows up (- perhaps an industrial one -) the first thing I do is to go to my kitchen crockery cupboard and see what size teacup I need to contain it!’
As a training captain for many years, on the DC-9-30 and, later, the B737-300/-400/-800, I was often asked by senior first officers, anticipating their own upgrade to initial command:
“We’re licensed to the same standards; we already hold a command instrument rating and first-class airplane endorsement and I’ve been a FO for 8-/10-/12+ years. We share the flying, mostly ‘leg-for-leg’, so what’s the essential difference between how you operate from that LH seat, compared with what I do from the RH seat?”
The basic premise of the question was spot-on. We did share the roles of ‘pilot-flying‘ and ‘pilot supporting‘ alternately and, as a training captain, I did fly and support from the RH seat, too, whenever I had the privilege of training a new captain, as he or she settled into the LH seat and its attendant, additional responsibilities. So I was current in both roles and I reckon the RH seat workload is higher. So, it was a great and a fair question – and therein lies a clue. My reply was, usually:
“As a first officer, you’ve become accustomed to being able to answer – or know where to find the answers – to most things. As a captain, you’ve got to know the questions.” This was not meant to be a glib throw-away line. By this, I meant that professional captains are always asking themselves, ‘What if?‘, trying to anticipate all possible scenarios and potential outcomes that may affect their present operation.
As a practical and valuable example, many aircraft type non-normal quick-reference handbooks (QRHs) include a procedure, detailing the failure of ALL generators, which could place the aircraft in the situation of relying solely on a ‘Standby‘ or ‘Emergency’ DC power supply, powered by the battery system, for just 30-60 minutes. It’s common for pilots to note or even commit to memory, the minimal electrical services available on ‘Standby Power’. But a great question is: ‘What services have we lost, if we have the generators and main electrical systems operating normally, but the ‘Standby’ or ‘Emergency’ DC power supply fails?‘ It’s generally ignored, as a ‘cannot possibly happen‘ event. if it can be imagined, it can happen.
In the case of the wonderful Fokker F27 Friendship, (my first airliner and my first airline command aircraft), along with other services lost when operating with the emergency DC power supply failed, ‘Ground Fine’ pitch or 0º pitch angle could not be selected on the propellers: the blade angle would ‘hang-up’ on the 16.5º fine pitch ‘stop‘ (designed to prevent fine pitch blade angles in flight, which could overspeed the propellers) and, after completing a landing with this condition, the Rolls-Royce Dart engines – turning at significantly reduced RPM – would probably overheat and melt turbine blades onto the runway or taxiway, through high internal temperatures and insufficient airflow!
The only solution to protect those engines, was to shut them both down after such a landing, BEFORE decelerating through about 40 Kts – and then requesting a tow to the terminal! And this serious point was NOT highlighted in the manufacturer’s or airlines’ flight operating or training manuals.
While operating a flight sector, great flight crew members, not just commanders, will be thinking ahead to the next leg and the next: weather considerations, fuel requirements, payload or airplane performance limitations, non-standard configuration considerations: the list goes on. But, with a conscientious work ethic and quality training, it’s not a chore. Command training should be fun, re-affirming everything you’ve learned throughout your career to date and adding your stamp to it. You’ve done the hard work, over many years. Now is the time to apply it. Enjoy!
A sad reality is that some of our passengers develop a fear of flying, for all sorts of reasons, generally not due to anything that they, themselves, have experienced. It is often due to a simple lack of understanding of how an airplane flies and ‘manages to stay up there.’ Sometimes, a friend or relative has scared them with a tale based on heresy, not fact.
Prior to ‘9-11’, it was sometimes possible, operationally, to invite a nervous passenger to visit the flight deck and it paid instant dividends -always. We could answer their specific questions or concerns; they could see that nothing was happening quickly on the flight deck, even though we were moving through the atmosphere at 450kts or 900km/hr. Often, the response was so apparent that we might extend an invitation to the passenger to remain with us, strap in to the ‘spare jump seat’ and a headset and experience the rare privilege of sharing the descent and landing, at our destination. In my experience, the results achieved were 110% successful! Passengers disembarked smiling, fully relaxed and would often stay, “Thank you so much, I’m cured!”
Very often, it seemed that the word, FEAR had been mis-represented as an acronym, F-E-A-R: ‘Fantasy – Expressed -As -Reality‘.
‘Fear of Flying‘ courses are sponsored by many airlines, to assist passengers to alleviate these unfortunate feelings. They are highly recommended.
Finally, without in any way wishing to diminish the reality of the ‘fearful flyer’ condition, let’s conclude with the light-hearted preface from ‘Spitfire Parade‘, one of the many books in the famous series of children’s (and parent’s-) own’ ‘Biggles‘ books (and radio serials) by Captain W.E Johns, highlighting the life and times of the fictitious British WW2 pilot and, later, Scotland Yard air detective Air Inspector James Biggleworth, known far and wide as ‘Biggles‘. Entitled ‘Biggles’ Philosophy‘, it went like this:
‘When you are flying, everything is either all right, or it’s not alright.
If it is alright, there is no need to worry; if it’s not alright, one of two things is certain:
Either you are in trouble, or you’re not in trouble.
If you are not in trouble, there is no need to worry; if you are in trouble, one of two things is certain:
Either you will crash, or you won’t crash.
If you don’t crash, there is no need to worry; if you do crash, one of two things is certain:
Either you will be injured, or you won’t be injured.
If you are not injured, there is no need to worry; if you are injured, one of two things is certain:
Either you’ll recover, or you won’t recover.
If you do recover, there is no need to worry;
And, finally, if you don’t recover, you can’t worry!’
The bottom line
It may become apparent, if not already, that many, if not all of the above vignettes apply not only to aviation, but in everyday life, as well. They certainly have, for me.
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