Complacency: Performance’s Evil Twin

Highly automated aircraft – the reality of the airline industry. A great concern paralleling this automation is the inbreeding of complacency.

We’ve moved away from teaching pilots how to fly jets, to teaching them how to program and manage – performance lapses. Automated airplanes identify and report system failures – systems knowledge lapses. We fly on the backside of the clock, for 10-12 hours, as our planes navigate across the oceans — fatigue sets in. We have Computer Data Link Communication (CPDLC) and no longer provide position reports – tasks reduced.

Unfortunately the magic and high performance of the modern-day aircraft has created a challenges: How to stay alert and involved, and avoid CFIT.

CFIT: Controlled Flight Into Terrain

It’s hard to imagine how a pilot could fly an airplane into the ground, but it happens. The mind’s ability to believe what it wants to see overpowers the reality of what is, and when there isn’t time to analyze the difference. Pilots assume their automated plane is going where it’s supposed to go because it’s done the right thing for the previous hundred flights. Fatigue, the impact is equally as bad as drinking.

A Turkish 737 crashes short of the runway in Amsterdam because of a radio altimeter flag. But that accident didn’t occur because of a system failure. 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 – a 90 second delay of required thrust – is why that plane crashed. What were they thinking?

Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 Schiphol

Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 Schiphol - 25 February 2009

Complacency on My Flight Deck

The fight against complacency extends beyond the automation of the aircraft, but also to seat position. I remember when I first started flying jets, how I assumed the captain knew everything – a misleading assumption, which can be extended to any crewmember. That old saying, “assume is to make an ass out of u and me” is true. Don’t assume anything, especially in an airplane. That 737 flight above had a check airman in the left seat.

My “first” on-line training flight on the 747-200 with a Tower Air Check Airman had briefed myself, and the Flight Engineer, that if we see anything unusual to speak out. He’d “been off for a month, and we’re all capable of making mistakes.” He was using full speed brakes as they gave us a slam dunk into Miami. Then he increased the power. He left the speed brakes out. I remember watching this behaviour for a few seconds and thinking, “This doesn’t look right, but he’s a check airman… Maybe it’s a line procedure to use power with speed brakes.”

Tower Air Boeing 747

Tower Air Boeing 747

I’m not shy to speaking out. He’d briefed us. And yet, I still saw something that shouldn’t be and my immediate reaction was to justify it because I was new. A great lesson on the power of the mind, and what we see.

The mind will attempt to justify the abnormal.

Airbus A330 Cockpit. My current machine.

Don’t assume the plane is doing what it’s supposed to, and don’t assume the guy in the left or right seat knows what he’s doing either. We must trust– but trust “yourself” too. If something doesn’t look right, speak out.

How Do we combat complacency?

So, how do We Combat Complacency?

  • Have a plan of action as to 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 begin to query as to why.
  • Know your systems. When something happens at the most inopportune time — you’ll know why, and be able to solve the problem.
  • When you see something that’s not right, your brain will go into a “disbelief” mode. Have confidence in yourself to get out of the situation, and ask questions later.
  • Prepare yourself to be the best you can be. Physically and mentally. There might be a time you’re unexpectedly, or unknowingly a single pilot.
  • Don’t trust your plane. She may have told you the truth a thousand times, but the time she lies to you may be the last.

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

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