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Saturday, January 7, 2017


Communication on international flights was always a challenge.  I talked about that previously.   English is the international language of aviation.  That is lucky for those of us who are native English speakers.  It must be a challenge for those who do not to speak English as a first language and there are some funny examples of why it is.  For example, some sadistic so and so named the primary fix we use when transitioning from the North Pacific routes to Japanese airspace Melon.  The Japanese controllers pronounce it Meron and it takes a few times to train you ear for things like that.

Another critical type of communication is that which transpires in the cockpit.  There have been many deadly crashes, because of communication break downs in the cockpit.  One of the reasons for this, was that captains had always been like sky gods in the cockpit.  Copilots often feared them, or feared for their jobs if they crossed them. 

One of the most notable and famous such crashes was the crash between 2 747s on the runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Another was the crash of a United Airlines DC-8 in Portland, Oregon, due to fuel starvation.

There was also a crash of an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 in the Florida Everglades.

These are some of the most famous, but there have been many more crashes that led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to suggest what was first called Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), but has been changed to Crew Resource Management to include cabin crew members, flight attendants.

You can follow all the above hyper links if you want to learn more about all that.

CRM came into existence in the late 70s, but not all airlines were doing it.  The low budget companies I had been working for had never held CRM classes.  UPS eventually initiated a CRM program during the 5 years I was flying the 747, in the early 90s.

You may remember me talking about my old pal, Captain Jack Bingham, who I flew with frequently on the UPS 747.  He is the guy who seemed to think first officers were a voice activated autopilot.  I have a funny story about him with regard to CRM.

Jack and I were flying with a flight engineer named, Jim Miller.  Jim was a good guy.  He was very erudite and articulate.  He was writing a mystery crime thriller during the time we flew together.  He did not particularly like Jack, who thought he was erudite.  I used to say, "We are still looking for a subject about which Jack is not an expert".

Jim had attended one of the very first CRM classes at UPS just prior to our trip.  When I learned that, we were flying over the Pacific to Seoul or Narita, a very long leg.  I started asking Jim questions about CRM and he was providing lots of information and personal insight.

Before long, I noticed that Jack was being uncharacteristically silent.  Then it occurred to me that we had indeed found something about which Jack knew nothing.  (I suspect there were many others, but there is no way he could have logically claimed to be more  knowledgeable than Jim about this one.)  Jim seemed to have broken the code on that also. 

With a wink and a nod, we began having a funny conversation at Jack's expense.  Jim said that the most interesting thing he learned at the CRM class was that most pilots have a much better image of themselves than their fellow pilots have and this was especially true of captains.  We both began laughing at that and enjoyed the look on Jack's face.

When I saw that look, I knew Jack would be in the earliest CRM class possible.  He simply could not go off, flying around the world, risking the possibility that he would be flying with someone who know more about a subject than he could pretend to know.

Several months later, I had flown a Whale into Chicago O'Hare from Anchorage and gone to the hotel.  I was sitting at the hotel bar, having a burger and a beer, when in walks Captain Jack, in uniform.  He ordered a cup of coffee and told me he was flying the jet back to Anchorage.

Jack wasted no time telling me he had attended the CRM class and that the most interesting thing he learned was that there were first officers who had previously been captains and still thought they were captains, like me.  I laughed and thought, "Touche".   

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