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Cockpit Culture – Boeing trains pilots to challenge each other

Captain Jim Dees, head of the American Airlines Boeing 777 and 787 training program, checks out the cockpit of the new 777-300ER. (Brad Loper/Dallas Morning News archive photo from Jan. 2013)

At what point did Asiana Airlines Flight 214 pilots know their Boeing 777 was too slow for a safe landing at San Francisco’s airport?

“Were the other three pilots in the cockpit reluctant to say something when they clearly saw they were too low? They had to,” says John Nance, a former pilot and Seattle-based aviation analyst.

As the National Transportation Safety Board pieces together the cause of the crash that killed 2 passengers, part of their investigation will include figuring out what was going on in the pilots’ minds.

Several decades ago some Asian airlines had problem with their “cockpit culture.” With most pilots recruited from the air force, strict hierarchy ruled with co-pilots not wanting to question the captain.

Those attitudes, from both Asian and Western pilots, led to deadly decisions.

In 1978, A United Airlines jet crashed in Portland, Oregon, killing 10 people because the co-pilot and flight engineer didn’t speak up. The captain had ignored the flight engineer’s warnings that the plane didn’t have enough fuel to land safely. As the tanks ran dry, the junior crew members said nothing.

In 1977, two Boeing 747s crashed in the Canary Islands – the deadliest accident in history with 583 fatalities – because the captain of one of the jets ignored warnings that he didn’t have clearance for takeoff.

“We had incidents of people actually sitting on their hands and letting a captain kill them, crash the airplane, before they would say anything,” Nance says.

“We’ve totally changed that. There’s been a massive 30 year cultural change that’s essentially complete in North America, but people backslide from time to time.”

Thomas Murray analyzed more than 1,000 catastrophic commercial airline accidents when he was with the Boeing Aviation Safety Group between 1984 and 2009.

“If the first officer has a concern, he or she is going to speak up very quickly to the captain, and the captain is going to be very receptive to that input. That’s a norm of most American and Western European cockpits,” says Murray, now an independent aerospace and aviation consultant.

“There are other cultures where that isn’t the norm and so we have co-pilots who sit there, who know they’re going to die, and they don’t say anything.”

Both Nance and Murray say the culture has changed significantly over the past three decades.

Due to the ongoing Asiana Air investigation, Boeing Commercial Airplanes did not want to have a representative talk about what they’ve done to change cockpit behavior.

Murray says based on his past experience with the company, Boeing aggressively trained those who end up flying the company’s aircraft.

“Boeing has spent a lot of time putting its pilots in the cockpit with pilots around the world,” he says. “They’re right there to try to help engage those pilots in a better fashion, and of course these are the training pilots for the airlines throughout the world.”

“The basic idea for pilots now is we turn to the captain and say. ‘We know you are human, we know you can’t be perfect and consequently we’re not going to allow you to run this airline with one carbon-based brain running everything,'” Nance adds. “We want them to take into account what their co-pilot thinks and sees.”

The reform effort seemed to be a success when South Korea was ranked No. 1 in a safety assessment of member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2008.

Nance says he wouldn’t expect to see an antiquated cockpit culture at Asiana because they’re a start-up airline, trained by Boeing from the beginning.

Lee Gang Guk was at the controls of Saturday’s nearly 10 1/2 hour flight from Seoul as it arrived at SFO. He’s put in nearly 10,000 hours flying other planes, but only 43 in the 777.

“They’ve certainly had plenty of exposure to these principals,” Nance says, calling what went wrong last Saturday “close to inexplicable.”


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