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Musings from the Ledge: No solo flying here

By |  April 29, 2021 0 Comments
Alan FitzGerald (Photo: Fernando Gaglianese)

Alan FitzGerald
(Photo: Fernando Gaglianese)

Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by airplanes and flying. My first flight in 1989 was on a 1960s era Soviet airliner on a school trip to (at the time) Communist Russia. I vividly remember landing in one of the most horrendous storms imaginable and, on the way home on Aeroflots “modern” airliner, how the outside jet was wiggling on the wing. I did not think much about it until we landed, and the mechanics were on it before the airplane door opened. Needless to say, I was happy that I wasn’t proceeding on to Cuba in it.

Like anyone who has flown quite a bit, I have my flying stories, including ending up on an Aer Lingus 747 going to JFK when I was supposed to be on a Ryanair flight to London, or the time in Philly in a huge snowstorm, where the deicing crane collapsed and broke the wingtip off of the airplane. The pilot’s “It’s OK folks, they bump us all the time; we’ll be in the air soon” was not reassuring as we watched jet fuel pour onto the runway …

At some point, possibly driven by these experiences, I became really interested in the science and engineering behind air crash investigations. The one thing that surprises me is how many times human error is a major factor in a crash, either directly or as part of a sequence of events where if any one piece was missing, the crash would not have happened. It provides an interesting perspective on people and the decisions they make, which can be transferred to the real world and everyday life. Outside of the cockpit, there might be the mechanic who cuts a corner to make his job easier or forgets to tighten something or the air traffic controller who missed something and put two planes in the same place.

Inside the cockpit, a breakdown in communication between the pilots is where most issues occur. The reason there are two pilots is that one checks the other, but that only works when the communication lines are open. Crew resource management ensures that if the captain makes a mistake, the co-pilot must be confident and comfortable enough to correct it, instead of just relying on the hierarchy of the positions. Maybe one of the pilots is tired and makes a simple miscalculation on fuel load. Maybe it is a fault, but pure panic takes over and they freeze, or it could be as simple as completion syndrome, where the pilots focus on some simple mundane issue and forget to actually fly the plane.

I have been lucky in my career as a superintendent to have always had a trusted co-pilot — an assistant who is an extension of myself, ready to take over if need be, someone I can trust to bounce ideas off of and most important, one who is not afraid to correct me on those occasions when I get a little too excited or have completion syndrome where I just have to get it done, even if it’s not the right thing to do.

Just like a cockpit’s resource management, it only works with mutual respect and when it is clearly defined who is in charge and there are no conflicting decisions. The industry has changed over the years with assistants staying in jobs longer. Personally, I feel this is a good thing, not only for superintendents — who can take some pressure off themselves by having someone trustworthy to hand the reins to when they are not there — but also for the club to know it is being guided by a team rather than an individual.

Hopefully, I have not scared anyone from flying, but just as the co-pilot sits in the right seat, your assistant is your right-hand (wo)man and is there to always back you up.



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