Heroism or Professionalism?

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Recently, Southwest Airlines flight 1380 experienced a catastrophic engine failure (note for non-aviators: a catastrophic engine failure means that the engine suddenly and violently failed in some manner. It does not mean that it resulted in a catastrophe for the airplane). The Captain (pilot), Tammie Jo Shults, a former US Navy F/A-18 pilot, responded to the emergency and landed the airplane safely. The only serious injury was caused by shrapnel from the failed engine puncturing a window and resulting in the tragic death of a woman. Captain Shults has been hailed as a hero by the media, as was Sully Sullenberger when he successfully executed an emergency landing in the Hudson River following a massive series of bird strikes immediately after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York.Southwest Tweet

I do not intend to disparage the performance of either Captain Shults or Captain Sullenberger. They both performed extremely well in tense and dangerous circumstances – circumstances where a failure to perform could well have ended with a significant number of fatalities. Nonetheless, both of these highly professional pilots did exactly what they were hired and trained to do – they took control of the airplane and the situation, executed emergency procedures in experienced and (again) most professional ways. The commercial airplanes in use today are highly automated and, absent an emergency, could be flown by almost anyone – in fact, most of the time, they are flown by a system of redundant computers – computers that fly an airplane very well, but fall far short of IBM’s Watson in terms of any kind of artificial intelligence. Flights often experience “business as unusual,” and pilots are there for precisely those times.

I want to take a look at three actual flight accidents (accidents are those events in which there are death, serious injuries or significant damage to the airplane):

Southwest flight 1380 which experienced that catastrophic engine failure. All commercial airplanes in service today can fly perfectly well with a failed engine – the FAA requires it before certifying the airplane type for commercial use. That does not mean that the situation Captain Shults experienced was not an emergency – it certainly was. She recognized the emergency immediately and responded rapidly, controlling the airplane, communicating with Air Traffic Control and declaring an emergency, and explaining to the passengers what was happening. She physically flew the airplane to a safe and controlled landing. It is obvious, to me, that she both knew her emergency procedures and had practiced them. Her Navy experience undoubtedly contributed to her appreciation of the importance of knowing and following her emergency procedures. And, like other airline pilots today, she had practiced those emergency procedures in very high-fidelity, motion-based trainers. She knew her stuff and was confident in her proven ability to handle the emergency.

US Airways flight 1549, immediately after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, encountered a flock of Canada Geese. Several geese were ingested by both engines, which then failed. The pilot, Captain Sully Sullenberger (an Air Force veteran) was now in command of a very heavy glider. Captain Sullenberger, like Captain Shults, immediately recognized his circumstances and took control of the airplane and the situation. He aviated (flew the unpowered airplane), navigated (figured out where he could go and which option was best) and communicated (told Air Traffic Control his situation and intentions). It is obvious that Captain Sullenberger knew his emergency procedures and was confident in his ability to execute them. He, like Captain Shults, had trained in simulators and knew his stuff – cold.

TransAsia Airways flight 235 crashed into the Keelung river just moments after takeoff in February 2015. The immediate cause of the fatal crash was the loss of power in both engines. Subsequent investigations revealed that one engine had experienced a power loss immediately after takeoff. As I noted previously, all commercial airplanes are required to be able to sustain a climb rate of 1500 feet per minute at maximum weight. The failure of an engine will not inevitably result in a crash. What happened in this case that did not happen in the Southwest Airlines or US Airways accidents?

To answer that, I want to start with my experience in multi-engine airplanes. Our emergency procedure for an engine failure in the four-engine P-3 was: 1) the flight engineer was to call out the number of the engine experiencing the failure (e.g. “Fire warning on number 3.”); 2) the pilot would physically take control of the airplane (if it was on autopilot) and fly the airplane; 3) the copilot would look at the engine warning lights and verbally (and loudly) confirm the failure (e.g. “Roger, fire warning on number 3.”); 4) the flight engineer would reach up and touch the emergency shut down handle for the failed engine, calling out, “I have engine number 3”; 5) the copilot would verbally confirm that the flight engineer was touching emergency shutdown handle number 3 and call out, “Roger emergency handle 3”; and 6) the flight engineer would pull the emergency shutdown handle and shut the failed engine down. Note that the cabin crew confirmed the failed engine multiple times. So what happened on TransAsia Airways 235? Apparently, the flight crew member hastily reached up and shut down the wrong engine. The airplane is now (like US Airways 1549) a glider, but rather than having someone with the experienced professionalism of either Captain Sullenberger or Captain Shults, the passengers were being flown by a flight crew that, apparently, panicked and failed to follow emergency procedures. They may have been inadequately trained or inexperienced or may have simply failed to execute professionally. In any event, they failed to respond to an emergency that should have resulted in nothing more than an emergency (and overweight) landing, and 43 people died.

Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal – Firestorm Colorado

The foot-stomp message here is that emergency procedures are vitally important – and not only for pilots, but for everyone who may experience an emergency. For example, in the last sixty years, there have been exactly zero fatalities in the US resulting from school fires – a major contributing factor is the existence of evacuation plans and regular fire drills. Plans and practice are no less important for other emergency and crisis situations. Events that can easily become great stories over beers can also become tragic news stories. The difference lies in predicting the risks, planning to respond to them, and training in the execution of those plans. Both Captain Sullenberger and Captain Shults declined to accept the media’s designation of them as “heroes.” They both said that they were “just doing their job.” I agree, but they were prepared and performed professionally. They deserve to be recognized – for their professionalism and the hard work they put in before they found themselves in an emergency situation. The differences between the Southwest and US Airways flights and the TransAsia Airways flight could easily have been in the professional preparation of the flight crews.

About Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal – Colorado

An engineer by education, a technologist by avocation and a problem-solving leader, Guy is widely recognized for his ability to quickly see to the crux of an issue and to focus on a solution. Guy has solved problems in stable operations, in times of crisis, and for the long term. “The primary focus has to be on a viable solution – before technology, or processes or tools are considered. It’s all about solving the problem – as quickly as possible, while keeping a long range perspective.”

Guy traffics in ideas and thinks that every valuable idea must fit into the real world – how the world is and how it works. A life-long learner, he reads voluminously and eclectically and continually updates his “mental model” of the world. His ability to understand the world today – and how it is evolving – enhances his ability to contribute to useful and executable solutions.

Guy has led major acquisition programs for the US Navy, achieving an unsurpassed 100% success rate (five for five) in operational testing – on cost and on schedule. He has likewise led major captures and large functional organizations for industry. He has explored new markets and championed innovation – in technology and products, in organization and leadership, and in business models. Throughout his career, Guy has maintained a “customer-centric” approach – for Navy warfighters and for business customers.

Guy earned a Master of Science degree in engineering as a Guggenheim Fellow and is a graduate of the US Navy Test Pilot School.

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