Revisiting Crew Resource Management (CRM)

Review my first article on CRM here.

With authority comes power, or at least usually. The professional piloting community is well aware of the benefits of exercising sound crew resource management. A recent evolution of professional pilot training – Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) – has now been in use at my particular company for approaching three years and with AQP came a new philosophy on managing the basic premise of safely operating a moving flying contraption from point A to point B.

AQP is largely welcomed amongst the pilots at my company considering that previous recurrent training programs required 6-month proficiency checks, which many found somewhat bothersome and void of tangible training benefits. Rolled out nearly simultaneously as our AQP training system was a transition from specific CRM training to threat and error management, or TEM, training.

Coupled with the current generation of CRM, TEM posits that crews work together to brief potential threats to the operation (be it taxing, taking off, climb, cruise/enroute, descent, approach, and/or landing threats) and accomplish mitigating steps to manage the threats prior to an error in operation occurs. Lastly, should an error occur, the crew can recognize the error prior to the aircraft arriving in an undesired aircraft state where further mitigation could be significantly difficult unless superior airmanship is utilized.

TEM is all well in fine in the eyes of the Flying Comm Guy, however, the emphasis on TEM has – in my opinion – left a growing void within the elements of formal training on CRM.

CRM becomes nothing more than a discussion had around the lounge water cooler when an accident occurs and pilots of all stripes begin to speculate on the causes of said accident. Yet, during other times, we pay CRM little specific focus beyond operating our aircraft in the standardized means taught to us by our employers. The one saving grace of having a 4,000 member pilot group is that, hopefully, each member of that group is operating along the same standard. Calling for checklists, verifying altitudes, confirming route changes, safely operating the aircraft within the confines of the operations manual and respecting the numerous structural limitations of the aircraft.

What is now largely ignored is the various different personality traits and level of leadership qualities within flight crew members.

Traditionally the word of the Captain was gospel. What he/she said, went. Even in times of extremely stress, few members of a flight crew would step forward and challenge the direction of the Captain. Now, after a number of “versions” of CRM, Captains, First Officers, Flight Attendants, Mechanics, Dispatchers, and Air Traffic Controllers are – for the most part – working together as a crew to utilize each other’s strengths to safely complete a flight.

One element that needs to be address however is the level of leadership ability held naturally by each individual, but more especially those who are up front. Flying an airplane for a profession is not considered a job where folks with low self-confidence can succeed. You need to be confident in your abilities and know when to speak up when you notice someone doing something that may put you, your fellow crewmembers, and passengers in a position of unnecessary risk.

An aspect of the traditional Captain role must remain, and that is of the Captain setting the proper tone and attitude within the cockpit and in coordination with cabin crews. However, First Officers must also be assertive enough to provide quality input in the initial stages of an interaction to properly stabilize the environment for success during a rotation (or pairing, or trip – whatever industry term you wish to utilize to recognize a period of days out flying with a crew).

First Officers must recognize when a Captain is lacking a quality, and must in a diplomatic fashion, strive to help the Captain. If the Captain is too passive and afraid of confrontation – the First Officer must step up and provided probing questions to the Captain to make sure they understand the significance of a situation. If no change in behavior occurs, the First Officer then must act – with the Captain being aware of the First Officer’s desire to solve a problem – somewhat singularly to find a solution to the problem and then offer it up to gain buy-in from the other crewmember.

If the Captain is too aggressive and is always looking for a confrontation, now the First Officer must find a way to encourage the Captain to bring it down a notch – which is not always an easy task. The consequences are significant considering the crew has to spend the next few days working with, and alongside this Captain.

With the emphasis placed more on TEM rather than CRM, pilots are not receiving the necessary leadership, physiological, crisis management, and decision making training that was commonplace in previous training environments.

Airline training departments and the FAA need to not only focus on identifying threats, recognizing the errors, and managing both – they need to refocus on highlighting poor aeronautical decision making with an emphasis on how crews failed to use the basics of CRM to avoid the poor decision in the first place.

In the absence of such training, the responsibility falls directly to the members of the “crew” to be professional enough to recognize when a poor decision has been made and to speak up. Specifically speaking for pilots, both crewmembers will arrive at the scene of the accident at the same time…and both are equally responsible for the ultimate safe conclusion or unfortunate ending of a flight.

Speak up, don’t stay silent. Be assertive, not passive.

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