Jan 29, 2007

Jumbo Gliders?

A popular aviation poster, often seen in flight planning centers, claims:

A superior pilot uses his superior wisdom to avoid having to use his superior skill.

The danger of platitudes is they can deflect us from thinking more deeply. Case in point...

As far as I know in the history of aviation only two Jumbo Jets have run out of fuel in mid-flight leading to the pilots successfully gliding the fuel-starved airliners to survivable landings. Coincidentally, both were Canadian-owned aircraft flown by Canadian pilots. I'm never sure what to make of that.

Anyway, if that poster is correct, we'd have to conclude that these pilots were of superior skill for pulling off such a feat, but of non-superior wisdom for running out of fuel in the first place. I once actually heard a fellow-captain make this claim regarding his colleagues. I believe he was engaging in something pilots do frequently as a defense against our fear of flying. We convince ourselves that if we can identify a colleague's failure (pilot error) which caused his accident, then we can fly secure in the belief that "I would never make that mistake - that couldn't happen to me ." Failure to look more deeply for the complete cause of an accident is only encouraged by platitudes such as expressed in that poster.

In both cases of Bringing Down Jumbo systemic errors in procedures and policies were in place long before the pilot entered the flight deck. These errors severely heightened the inevitability of an accident and the pilot was merely the last line of defense.

The mistakes in these cases included things like:
• questionable management decisions;
• inadequate training;
• inadequate system and maintenance support;
• inadequate corrective action by maintenance departments; and
• a regulatory agency which let these questionable practices continue.

Accidents are seldom caused by one failure. More likely they are the culmination of an unfortunate alignment of several failures starting at the Head Office and working right down through the system. Simply blaming the pilot for not preventing the accident, fails to catch and correct the larger contributing factors. Happily accident investigation techniques and policies have progressed over the years of my career and the Transportation Safety Boards in the U.S. and Canada now routinely search for more complete answers. This is leading to an ever-improving airline safety record.

Which is a good thing because we don't need any more Canadians bringing down Jumbos - neither pachyderms nor airplanes.

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chris said...

Seem as though the chance to use their superior wisdom is taken away and they just better hope they have superior skill

Aluwings said...

Yeah, it's like skill represents the last hope. The degree of skill needed to save a bad situation may be less, if the problem is recognized sooner. The hard part of gaining wisdom is that you have to survive your mistakes. Often that's a matter of luck.

Smurfjet said...

"Coincidentally, both were Canadian-owned aircraft flown by Canadian pilots. I'm never sure what to make of that."

They also had the same first name.

The plot thickens, hehe.