Complacency: Performance’s Evil Twin.

Automation — the future of the aviation industry. The greatest concern paralleling this automation is the inbreeding of complacency.

The airways and airport terminals are overloaded with thousands of flights, and controllers are managing them electronically. Flight instructors have moved away from teaching pilots how to fly jets, to teaching them how to program and manage. Pilots initially learn aircraft systems, but today the airplanes identify and report failures, and systems knowledge lapses. Flight attendants no longer give the emergency briefing, passengers watch a video— but do they? Pilots sit idly on the backside of the clock, for 10-12 hours, as their planes navigate across the oceans— what keeps them alert? The on board Computer Data Link Communication (CPDLC) eliminates the need for position reports reducing the workload but increasing fatigue of idleness. Mechanics are dependant upon the aircraft reporting maintenance issues, and their diagnosis skills lapse.

Unfortunately the magic and high performance of the modern-day aircraft, and aviation operating systems has created a new challenge: How to stay alert, how to stay involved and for pilots how to avoid CFIT.

CFIT: Controlled Flight Into Terrain is a reality. It’s hard to imagine how a pilot could fly an airplane into terrain, but it happens. The mind’s ability to believe what it wants to see overpowers the reality of what is, and there isn’t time to analyze the difference.  We assume our automated plane is going where it’s supposed to go because it’s done the right thing for the previous hundred flights.

This assumption extends beyond the aircraft to every aspect of aviation. Automation reduces the minds ability to believe the moment when something doesn’t look right. The bombing of Pearl Harbor comes to mind. How was possible to not see and identify hundreds of aircraft on the radar screen? “This can’t be true.”

A Turkish Air 737 crashed short of the runway in Amsterdam because of a radio altimeter flag. The flag was a warning that the pilots failed to acknowledge. The plane responded to a faulty system– yes. But the lack of crew response is why that plane crashed. They delayed 90 seconds before applying power. Their actions were too late. Why didn’t they respond sooner? What were they thinking? They allowed their plane to fly itself into the ground as they were sucked into a comfort zone that everything was fine when it wasn’t.

The fight against complacency extends beyond the automation of the aircraft and the industry, but to seat and management position. I remember when I first started flying jets, how much I assumed the captains knew everything– a misleading assumption. That old saying, “assume is to make an ass out of u and me” is true. Don’t assume anything, especially when you have lives in your hands.  That Turkish Air crash had Check Airman in the left seat.

Don’t assume the plane is doing what it’s supposed to, and don’t assume the guy in the left or right seat or the bigger office, knows what he’s doing either.  Don’t assume your equipment is doing what it’s supposed to. We must trust– but trust “yourself” too. Have the confidence to act.

How do we combat complacency?

  • Always have a plan of action. Pilots, know how you’d fly the descent, approach, departure, etc., Then make sure the airplane is following your plan, not the other way around. When she’s not performing the way you think she should, your mind will ask why, and you won’t be suck down the path of complacency.
  • Know your systems. Know your procedures. When something happens at the most inopportune time, you’ll know why and how to solve the problem.
  • Acknowledge that when you see something that’s not right, your brain will instantly go into a disbelief mode. Have confidence in yourself to stop the snowball from rolling downhill.
  • Prepare yourself to be the best you can be. There might be a time you are unexpectedly, or unknowingly a single pilot, managing on your own, or need to work that second shift in the tower.
  • Don’t trust your plane. Don’t trust your equipment. Don’t trust your operating systems. She may have told you the truth a thousand times, but the time she lies to you may be the last. If something doesn’t look right, chances are, it’s not. Take action.

Complacency is the battle in our new automated world. Take on that fight, and win the war.

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