On December 28th, 1978, a DC8 flying into Portland Oregon from New York City (United Airlines flight 173) was on final approach, when a cockpit light indicated that there was a nose-gear problem. The crew needed time to investigate, so the captain put the plane into an emergency holding pattern. As he did so, the flight engineer warned that the fuel state was critical, saying, “Fifteen minutes is gonna run us really low here”. But he never raised his concerns again, not even after more than fifteen minutes had passed. If he was at all worried that the captain did not appear to heed his warning, this certainly isn’t manifest in the voice recorder transcript. Tragically, the plane did run out of fuel and crashed seven miles short of the airport perimeter, killing the flight engineer and nine other souls on board. I’m sure you’ll agree that was a high price indeed to pay for reticence.
This and similar incidents led the aviation industry to look into what is known as ‘cockpit culture’, in which the pilot behaves autocratically and shows insufficient regard for the input provided by supporting crew members—these crew members, in their turn, appearing to be intimidated by the captain’s authority. As a result of these investigations, aircrew training was radically revised and the industry introduced something it called ‘Crew Resource Management’ (CRM).
CRM is designed to improve teamwork, which it does so primarily by improving communication between crew members, in particular by teaching junior crew members how to question the pilot’s actions (or inaction) without the pilot feeling that his or her authority is being compromised. For example, one may need to question a pilot that starts flipping switches that shouldn’t be flipping switched. The effect of CRM is to maximise use of crew resources and, most importantly, promote situational awareness in the cockpit.
If accident statistics are anything to go by, the introduction of CRM would appear to have been somewhat successful, so much so that versions of it can now be found in other sectors; for example, in the offshore oil industry, the fire service, and the medical profession. And then there is the maritime profession, which has its own version, referred to as ‘Bridge Resource Management’ (although it seems the captain of the Concordia may have mislaid his BRM manual).
Such widespread adoption amongst the various sectors is understandable. So the question isn’t why has CRM become so widespread—the question is why isn’t it now universal. For example, surely there are plenty of political and social scenarios which could benefit from the promotion of situational awareness. And if CRM can teach us anything about how this may be achieved, then we should be taking note.
So what is this magic formula that has transformed accident statistics across so many industries? Transport Canada’s CRM training manual sums it up very nicely in its introduction, when it says:
“The key to the success of a CRM program is the mutual respect and confidence that is created among crew members, which fosters an environment that is conducive to openness, candour and constructive critique.”
Well this definitely resonates with me. I don’t remember flying any aeroplanes during my career, but I do remember having many a dog-fight with senior management, in which I could have made an important contribution to the company’s situational awareness, had it not been for the lack of professional respect I encountered—especially in my capacity as quality manager.
Such disrespect could take a rather extreme form. In fact, sometimes it felt like a form of recreational persecution; not really a witch hunt, more like a fox hunt, in which gratuitous, quality manager baiting became a right of passage into senior management. When daddy gorilla is having his sport, there is no room for situational awareness. But you see, that is the defining characteristic of authority—it survives only because it is successful in discrediting alternative views. It is rarely founded upon mutual respect, and it hardly ever fosters an environment that is conducive to openness, candour and constructive critique.
It hardly needs me to point out how this dynamic plays out in the world of climate science. Within the profession, judicious grant approvals and pal review have done a mighty fine job of ensuring that those views that concur with the approved orthodoxy prevail. And woe betide anyone who lies outside that club of peer-reviewed scientists, if they were to dare to suggest that they have anything to offer to improve situational awareness. Furthermore, the testimony from former members of the IPCC, having resigned in protest over editorial abuse during the production of the Assessment Reports, hardly inspires confidence. If I could use any phrase to sum up the customary attitudes, I think it would be ‘cockpit culture’.1
We can’t know exactly what was going on in the minds of those who were on the flight-deck of flight 173. But if the black box transcript is anything to go by, long before the plane hit the ground, the science had been settled and there was no longer any meaningful debate to be had. A more vociferous flight engineer might have saved the day but it is highly likely that the individual concerned had long before learnt the professional value of silence; and this proved a very difficult lesson to unlearn, even when his life depended on it.
The message you take away from this anecdote will depend very much upon the position you take in the climate science debate. Does the flight engineer represent the climate scientists warning that planet Earth will crash if no-one listens to them? Or was the pilot representative of the authorities who fail to see the folly of trying to keep the global economy in the air without the aid of fossil fuel? Either way, the real lesson is this:
The key to success in tackling the climate change issue will be the mutual respect and confidence that is created in a society that fosters an environment conducive to openness, candour and constructive critique. Anything short of that will crash the plane.
1. Read here for a timely example of the disquiet that cockpit culture is still causing on the climate science flight-deck.