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Cockpit Discipline: How to Create a Safety Culture in the Wake of Recent Incidents

The overflight last October by a Northwest/Delta crew of its scheduled destination (Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, or MSP) has generated considerable discussion among NBAA Members about professionalism and responsibility in the cockpit.

That incident, in which the pilots did not respond to repeated radio calls from air traffic controllers – because the pilots reportedly were focused on their personal laptop computers while discussing airline crew scheduling procedures – is being viewed as a gross lack of situational awareness. But while that incident may be an extreme example, it raises an issue that faces all flightcrews, says Roger Baker: "How do you keep your heads in the game?" during routine flights.

Baker, the chairman of NBAA's Safety Committee and head of Fairfax, VA consulting firm Safety Focus Group LLC, says he is a "huge believer in the sterile cockpit rule." That rule says flightcrews should not engage in activities or discussions unrelated to the safe operation of the aircraft, particularly during critical phases of flight.

During his 29 years as a Federal Aviation Administration employee, including 12 as the agency's national manager for safety, Baker spent a lot of time riding in airline cockpit jumpseats. He says his most frequent remark during those jumpseat flights was "Shhhh!," uttered when pilots got into long-winded conversations that had nothing to do with flying the airplane. "They all understand" the sterile cockpit rule and the need for it, Baker said, "They just don't pay attention to it."

Not only is it natural for pilots to have conversations during flight, "I think it's healthy to relieve a little bit of the stress," Baker said. "It's not that you can't relax in flight – you can," he said. But at the same time, pilots should "set yourself up with a pattern to say, ‘Let me check this, I need to check that.'" During a flight "there are always things that need to be done," he said. Pilots need to figure out the little tricks they can use to keep themselves focused on flying the aircraft safely, Baker added.

Regulation Not the Answer

Tony Kern, the CEO of Convergent Knowledge Solutions, believes "self-induced distraction [in the cockpit] is far more prevalent than we probably suspect." After posting a blog entry discussing the Minneapolis overflight (, Kern received several disturbing responses. They included reports of pilots wearing "iPod headsets underneath their regular airline headsets" and "folks telling me that people bring gaming systems into the cockpit and are using them [during] certain phases of flight."

Trying to curb that type of willful behavior through regulation is not the answer, according to Kern. "Compliance through enforcement has never worked in any industry," he said. Instead, the aviation community needs "to find a way to make this type of behavior socially unacceptable," but "I think it's actually moving in the other direction," Kern said. "My guess is this wasn't the first time those guys had broken out their laptops in flight." Left unchecked, such activity is "going to continue to denigrate [and] bring down a culture of excellence," he said.

“We need to have the core of professionals out there who are silent begin to speak up for our profession.”

CEO, Convergent Knowledge Solutions

Aviation is "one of those occupations where we have to be self-monitoring" and engage in peer-to-peer monitoring, Kern said. By not objecting to unsafe actions by a fellow crewmember even a single time means "we've set the wheels in motion to have that sort of behavior actually continue to grow. We know as professional pilots what we should be doing," he said. Instead of new regulations, "I think we need to have the core of professionals out there who are silent begin to speak up for our profession. And [then] I think this problem goes away."

The Trouble With Technology

Kern believes most pilots do not consciously try to circumvent safety guidelines and company policies. "But I think we're seeing a deterioration of compliance when it comes to sterile cockpit [and] attention management [challenges]". And it's not a new phenomenon. "I think it's been going on for a decade or more," he said.

Kern mentioned a jumpseat flight he made as an observer seven years ago in the cockpit of a Denver-bound aircraft operated by a Part 121 carrier. During the automated, fully coupled approach from FL 140 down to 500 feet, Kern said both pilots were "headsdown," sending and receiving messages on their ACARS units. Neither ever looked out of the cockpit, he said, even though the aircraft passed north of Colorado Springs through an area that was the subject of a NOTAM because of frequent glider flights.

After deplaning, Kern mentioned to the crew that they had been heads-down for a long time during the descent. "That's what we had you for," the captain said with a laugh.

As a retired U.S. Air Force (USAF) command pilot and former USAF Academy professor, Kern has spent much of his life flying, teaching and contemplating airmanship and cockpit discipline. The retired lieutenant colonel holds multiple degrees, including a doctorate in education, specializing in human factors training design. In his November blog posting, Kern observed that "advances in technology have made the modern cockpit so error tolerant that a pilot can make literally hundreds of errors and commit scores of violations without serious consequence. Experience – once the great teacher – now teaches pilots that errors and violations don't really matter. Unwittingly, we may have engineered ourselves into a culture of noncompliance."

To help address that situation, Kern's firm offers an "Automation Airmanship for Corporate Aviation" course. It emphasizes human performance issues and teaches a pilot "where he/she fits into that equation and how best to operate inside that equation." The course focuses on 12 key skills that include mission preparation, inflight operation and failure/deviation response. It's about the man/ machine interface from the man side of the equation, Kern said.