Libya’s soft-skills disaster

Once a month (normally), commercial pilots pick up their new roster to see what they will be doing, or at least expect to do for the next month.

Seeing a CRM – Crew Resource Management – training session on the roster often results in a small inward sigh, not least because they are often combined with ‘business awareness’ training, ‘customer expectation’ training and other things which, for many pilots, are clear from previous careers in corporate business and customer service.

Sometimes, however, sad accidents remind us in commercial aviation of the need for a flight deck operation which is coordinated and well-planned. The case of Afriqiyah 771 (Airbus A330-200, registration 5A-ONG) brings to mind the harsh reality that, in a scrappily-managed and poorly-briefed approach, the often-present fatigue can combine with some handling mistakes to result in the total loss of an aircraft and almost all occupants.

How can we always be expected to properly brief our intentions when the other pilot is clearly tired, bored, irritable or just looking at something interesting out of their window?

Good CRM is about more than just keeping their interest for long enough to share a mental model. It serves as a backup and safety net for situations where SOPs are ignored (such as flying below the minimum altitude to get visual with the runway before performing a go-around), when holes in training or currency lead to poorly-flown go-arounds, or perhaps where fatigue leads us to succumb to tricks of the mind, such as somatogravic illusions (accelerating at a normal nose-up angle leads to mistakenly believing a climb is steeper than it really is, maybe leading to an unintentional push forwards on the controls).

Briefing these risks in advance may for many pilots be a secondary, less-interesting aspect to flying than, well, the actual flying. The truth is that we manage risk for a living: this assessment is our primary job. Our CRM (non-technical) tools are there to catch us when the other holes in the cheese line up. Indeed, they will probably keep us away from the go-around in the first place.

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