Wednesday 10 July 2013

Asiana flight 214, Alpha males, deference, culture


Convention dictates that investigating an airliner crash takes time. Probably a few minutes in many cases. If a plane with functioning engines crashes into an airport runway in good weather then the cause, virtually always, is pilot error. Most accidents are caused by pilot error anyway, so it is always a safe bet. The airline industry takes safety seriously, knowing that there is nothing like a well-publicised crash with lots of deaths at one time to attract media attention and to scare the public away, thus damaging their profits. Because of that they have engineered safety into the system. Engines are more reliable, instrumentation more accurate and reliable and backed up, control systems faster and more reliable, cockpit displays more readable, airport signalling systems more accurate and reliable (the San Francisco one was switched off, but that should be no problem on a sunny morning with clear visibility: it is not foggy Heathrow) and in the end the final errors in the system have people’s names on them.

Crew resource management has been implemented since 1981. It seeks to deal with the Alpha Male problem. The best jet fighter pilots go on to a later career as airline captains. Those who were not Top Guns go on to be co-pilots. Why should a Beta Male co-pilot interrupt an Alpha Male Captain as he makes what appears to be a mistake? He can probably correct it with a flick of a manly wrist, leaving the Beta Male in the wimpish position of being a scaredy-cat who cried wolf. Hence, many co-pilots go quietly to their deaths. The black box often records their final sotto voce words: “Are we coming in a little low, perhaps…..”

So, crew resource management trains the co-pilot to call out things as they are, loud and clear, and makes the captain see himself as part of the team, not the single Top Gun fighter pilot, reduced to the shameful labourer of driving a bus full of geese. Get the team working together and the end result is a reduction in pilot errors.

My mole in the airline industry tells me that Ariana doesn’t really get crew resource management. There is a problem about “losing face” in East Asian cultures. Culture is often a collection of bad habits. It should not be sacrosanct, though current fashions assume that if cutting off the clitoris is traditional, then special licence must be given to those among whom it is habitual, even though if it were adopted as an innovation by a Westerner it would be considered criminal. Anyway, I am open to contrary data about the management of cockpits in Ariana planes. It is already admitted that the training pilot noticed the low approach and low speed too late, gunning the engines just as it was no longer possible to abort the landing. Something went wrong in the chain of command, such that a potentially fatal error was picked up and acted upon too late.

Of course, it would be premature, etc…. to comment at this early stage. The accident report will be euphemistic, and the need for training will be emphasised.

Meanwhile, the photos show that some tubby, beta or omega males considered that it was appropriate to save their luggage rather than their fellow passengers. They were probably following the adage: “Men and luggage first”. Of course, it could be a matter of shock. Or it could be egotistic self-absorption. It would be premature to comment at this early stage.

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