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It’s never been an interest of ours to “pile-on” during the days, weeks, and months following an aviation accident. Our approach is to evaluate the facts and findings, and then view them through the lens of contemporary airmanship. In fact, our book (Automation Airmanship, McGraw-Hill Education, 2012) was written during the aftermath of the Air France 447 accident in June 2009, and we took specific caution during our writing to avoid speculation while the investigators carefully evaluated every available lead during the years that followed that accident.

We have patiently stood by since October 2018, watching the facts and findings build following two recent and now notorious accidents involving similar aircraft models (the Boeing 737 MAX) flown by operators on opposite sides of the globe. October 2018’s Lion Air Flight 610 (JT610) and March 2019’s Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 (ET302) have generated renewed interest in the challenge of designing and operating advanced aircraft, interest which seems only to build after a very public tragedy. Before this interest recedes (as it most certainly will), there is much to be learned and discussed. We’ll stick to what we know best, and that which applies directly to all flight crews of all aircraft all the time, not just since learning of the potential shortcomings of one aircraft’s design featured in the daily headlines.

One of the most concerning aspects of both of these accidents—as it relates to all cockpit crewmembers—is the evidence of a trend across our industry over the past two decades when fielding new and complex aircraft:

The limiting of what manufacturers provide in the way of system operation and logic knowledge, and operators who then use these resources as the basis to train crews in flying the new aircraft.

Ultimately, cockpit crews must know and be able to put into immediate practice the crucial steps to restore a safe flight path, quickly, no matter the cause behind the undesired flight path. A key component of the critical responsibility is an expert-level knowledge of the system itself. Pilots must have this knowledge at their fingertips during initial and recurrent training, and for their own self-study.

The “logic” behind the 737 MAX Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control law has been a central target of both accident investigations—exactly the kind of “logic knowledge” we identified over a decade ago as one of the foundational principles of automation airmanship that falls into “that special knowledge reserve of the best glass cockpit pilots” that all cockpit crewmembers should be expected to master.

Speaking of the grounding of the 737 MAX fleet, aviation investigative journalists writing for Aviation Week & Space Technology wrote in the March 25–April 7 edition of the journal that, “The [737 MAX] MCAS’ risks were not well-enough understood, by pilots or regulators, to allow the MAX to keep flying.”1 How this lack of knowledge and understanding manifested itself prior to the grounding of the aircraft globally is summarized best in a letter-to-the-editor from a 737 MAX Captain, excerpted from the same March 25th edition:

“This system is still not referenced by name nor is detailed systems information provided in the FAA-approved flight manual supplied by my company…”

This Captain goes on to say that as part of his crew briefing (presumably prior to the global grounding of the MAX-8), now includes the following:

“We are flying an aircraft which, if not properly and closely monitored, may attempt to kill us. If, at any time in flight, we experience continuous un-commanded stabilizer trim movement we will execute the Runaway Stabilizer procedure and, if necessary, disconnect the trim cutout switches below the throttles. We will then use manual trim to return the aircraft to a trimmed condition and continue to use manual trim for the duration of the flight and land as soon as conditions permit.”2

This kind of knowledge has been called many things by manufacturers, training providers, management, and even flight crews; “nice to know, not need to know,” “geek-speak,” “techno-babble,” and “technical mumbo jumbo,” to name a few. No matter the outcome of these investigations, and whether decision makers choose to add this key knowledge for crews back into operating publications and training or decide to keep it out for reasons of cost or efficiency, pilots will find a way to remain responsible for the safe operation of their aircraft, just as this anonymous Captain has done.

In our own 2012 book, we introduced the 9 Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. The list can be viewed as a build-up from basic principles to the final capstone principle that we titled, “Logic Knowledge.” We organized our thesis and named 9 Principles as crucial to the modern crew member’s knowledge based on their durability for every pilot, in any kind of aircraft, even as the technology evolved. We now see, over a decade after the first mention of the concept of Automation Airmanship in 2008, that much of what our field work produced has in fact remained if not timeless, certainly durable, and over time, increasingly valuable as a factor in safe outcomes.

It seems obvious to us that every stakeholder in the industry, from the CEO to the infrequent flyer, would be interested in providing flight crews with knowledge and training of the most technical aspects of how the aircraft flight path is controlled by the automation.

Whenever I am compelled to write on the subject of failures, accidents, and how they relate to contemporary airmanship, I reach for the wisdom of Professor Henry Petroski, who in 2012 wrote these words about accidents that have a technology component:

“In all cases of surprise or failure, the greater technological tragedy is not having failure but not learning the correct lessons from them. Every failure is a revelation of ignorance, an accidental experiment, a found set of data that contains clues that point back to causes and further back to mistakes that might have been made in design, manufacture and use. Not to follow the trail to its source is to abandon an opportunity to understand better the nature of the technology and our interaction with it…every new failure—no matter how seemingly benign—presents a further means toward a fuller understanding how to achieve a fuller success.”3

Whether or not key information about how any aircraft’s flight control, flight guidance, autoflight, and flight path monitoring systems work are part of the provided guidance and training, every pilot must individually seek an understanding of these systems. This understanding must go beyond mere familiarity and ultimately lead to proficiency and mastery on the flight deck, across all situations and during all contingencies. Achieving “a fuller success” depends on it.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

References:

1 Sean Boderick and Thierry Dubois, in “MAX Chaos”; Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 25-April 7, 2019. P 14

2 From “Feedback”; Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 25-April 7, 2019. P. 5

3 Henry Petroski, To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure. 2012, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. P. 45

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Briefing and Debriefing—the Second Principle of Automation Airmanship®—may be the most undervalued influence in today’s modern cockpit. This blog post looks at how pilots at any level of experience can significantly improve outcomes by re-examining this often overlooked and all too frequently overdone airmanship tool.

Any cockpit crewmember with even just a few hundred hours of flight time can speak with authority on how flight briefings often contain too much of the “wrong” information and not enough of the “right” information. In some organizations, this has become so commonplace that the preflight, departure, or arrival briefings are viewed mainly as a list-like, rote memory exercise that enumerates organizational SOPs and routine threats that are generally always present and already known (so what’s the use?).

Indeed, the “required briefing items” that comprise many preflight and inflight briefings are often “written in blood”—but surely this critical flight crew duty could be vastly improved at just about every contemporary flight operation. A truly good briefing accomplishes so much more than we think. Updating what we understand about briefings and in turn how we give (and get) them can add significantly to our safety margins.

There is no “one size fits all briefing.” The fact is, situations are unique, conditions change, the experience of members of the team often varies, available time can be short or long, and the real world is likely to intervene, presenting new variables in a situation that you expected to be stable. In light of these facts, the best test of any briefing is to ask yourself: “Does my briefing make their job easier to do, or harder?”

There’s a lot of science on leadership and teamwork, but not much on the role that a briefing can play in realizing (or handicapping) a leader’s or a team’s goals. A survey of some of the best available science on briefing—and a lot of our experience in the field—reveals a solid list of what the best briefings often contain. Here is our list of what goes into a truly good briefing:

Truly Good Briefings…

  1. Work best when they contain realistic and practical steps towards a reasonably achievable goal.
  2. Do not include rote and already-understood SOPs, procedural steps and norms (we can assume—most of the time—that the people we’re briefing live in the same shared culture with the same common references to “how things work”).
  3. Clearly convey the intent of the briefer.
  4. Capture the attention of those being briefed.
  5. Are delivered in an environment of minimal distractions.
  6. Are always a two-way communication (“I’m not just telling you these things, I want to know what you know about our challenges, and where I might have erred in evaluating the threats we’re facing”).
  7. Allow for adaptation (a reasonable “Plan B” for when “Plan A” runs into trouble).
  8. Make the job of everyone on the team easier to accomplish, and result in outcomes better than would be possible if the situation was preceded by no briefing or a poor briefing.

If we could only accomplish all that we wanted to do by ourselves, without the help of others, we would most certainly be able to do away with briefings. But because the real world is increasingly complex and our resources—at least the way it always appears—are ever more scarce, contemporary flight crews are continually asked to find ways to work together more closely and more smoothly. Often, this depends on how well we perform our briefings.

What we are able to provide in a briefing is only a small portion of what those crewmembers we are briefing have on their mind regarding what the team is about to do. So, what we brief should be important if we expect the person we are briefing to remember what we said, and to act on information or distractions in the way that we want them to.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

References:

Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1998. Chapter 13: The Power to Read Minds.

Chris Lutat and S. Ryan Swah, Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. McGraw-Hill Education, New York NY. 2013. Chapter 5: The Second Principle: Briefing and Debriefing.

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