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By Lieutenant Geoffrey Frank, U.S. Navy
Personalities and interpersonal relations characterize the following tragedies, termed crew coordination mishaps in the jargon of aviation. But naval air doesn’t monopolize this type of accident. A review of any community’s safety records reveals the challenge posed by the human element during hazardous operations.
- A commander, squadron executive officer, is obviously flying a marginal approach but doesn’t want to add to his embarrassment by “waving off” to try again. The lieutenant with him, a designated instructor, doesn’t want to risk his executive officer’s notorious temper by calling for the wave-off. He thinks the executive officer, an outstanding pilot, can pull it off. After they crash, it takes rescue workers six hours to pull their bodies out of the wreckage.
- During a night tactical mission, a crew focuses on a baffling but minor electrical problem. Frustrated, they begin arguing about its source. As the pilot points out a circuit breaker he wants cycled, the aircraft impacts a hilltop.
- Two lieutenant commanders have been performing unauthorized “show” maneuvers during routine training flights. The airmanship competition escalates until they wisely call a truce. Months later a young lieutenant, considered one of the unit’s best pilots, crashes after attempting similar maneuvers for weeks. The one survivor admits that other crewmembers were “uncomfortable” about the stunts. But no one objected.
The sea services routinely operate in harm’s way, and safety ranks among the highest concerns of our officers. In destroying our own assets through operator
Coordination problems are not confined to aircraft with large crews; two-seaters (here, an F-I4 prepares to launch from the Theodore Roosevelt) and single-seaters in flights are also vulnerable.
error or mechanical malfunction, we accomplish our enemies’ objectives for them—and the loss of a close relative or friend costs far more than just a wasted percentage of U.S. readiness.
The crew-caused mishap is especially tragic because it is so preventable. Good crew coordination is best achieved through effective cockpit leadership.
Aviation presents unique challenges, but so do surface, submarine, and amphibious operations. The teamwork required for success in the air is universal; good leaders anywhere achieve it in the same ways. A flight crew’s performance, like that of any other team, directly results from the quality of its leadership.
Naval aviation safety managers believe that nothing happens by accident. They painstakingly search the chain of events and actions preceding a mishap, seeking lessons learned to prevent another. Over the past decade this approach has highlighted weak aircrew coordination as an insidious villain, causing or contributing to a majority of aircraft mishaps.
Today’s carefully selected aviation personnel receive years of training for specific crew positions and must demonstrate readiness for every imaginable contingency. Survival in the air, however, depends upon the successful integration of their efforts. Too often mishap investigators find that perfectly competent individuals simply failed to work together, with disastrous consequences.
Surprisingly, this situation has not been unique to aircraft with large crews, nor is it confined to the high-pressure, “seconds count” emergencies one associates with aviation. Inadequate crew coordination creates two-crew aircraft mishaps during routine evolutions; it also can affect single-seat aircraft, which usu-
ally launch in flights of two or more.
Safe mission accomplishment depends upon the entire team’s performance.
Even when it’s time to “do that pilot stuff,” the best make maximum use of all the eyes, ears, and judgment on board. Crew coordination became one of military and civilian aviation’s buzzwords for the 1980s. Its emphasis has greatly contributed to safety and mission success.
Target: Crew Coordination
Our pursuit of improved crew performance includes many elements. Aircraft manuals, which primarily addressed emergencies from a purely functional, systems approach (what steps must be taken for the aircraft) have been reoriented toward specific duties (who must accomplish or monitor which step). Expanded pre-flight briefs review individual responsibilities and clarify their interactions.
Aircrew Coordination Training (ACT) courses have been added to the fleet replacement squadrons; they provide specific model and mission training for aviation personnel en route to fleet squadrons. Modeled after successful programs developed in the commercial- airline industry, ACT emphasizes cockpit management and team-simulator training.
Crew-coordination programs highlight critical cockpit skills such as communication, clearly assigned delegation of tasks, expectations for performance, monitoring, and feedback. Interpersonal relations are stressed—including respect, praise, and criticism.
These terms probably sound familiar to graduates of leadership training courses. ACT makes an equivalent contribution to cockpit leadership.
Like leadership courses, though, these outstanding programs only provide tools for the job; the rest is up to us.
We are often reminded that airmanship is only one grade on a naval aviator’s fitness report. We tend to think of it as "stickwork,” or technical mission knowledge. But successfully operating °ur multicrewed aircraft in the increas- ■ngly crowded and interdependent arena °f modern aviation requires every trait of a strong officer.
Successful flight crews do a lot of •hings well, but all feature a climate that dicks superior performance; one in which individuals share an attitude of Professionalism and dedication. This ntmosphere is the intangible secret ingre-
dient that generates safety and mission success in any unit. We quickly recognize its presence—or absence—in commands, divisions, and work centers. It is every bit as critical in the air, where the measurement of performance is quick and unforgiving. By creating and maintaining this climate, the aircraft commander performs his or her most important duty: leading the crew.
There are nearly as many leadership guidebooks as there are Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard officers. Any will provide useful insights if reviewed from an aircraft commander’s perspective. Consider some fundamentals:
► Respect: Relationships between seniors and subordinates should be based on mutual respect and trust. Surely this obvious maxim applies to aviation’s “top cut” professionals. Yet countless articles in Approach, the naval aviation safety magazine, mention some pinheaded ogre whose cockpit tyranny causes or worsens an unsafe situation. This embarrassingly common scenario is almost an aviation parable: The copilot who tried to prevent the accident was told to shut up. An E-8 crew chief gets personally humiliated before the entire crew because the box lunches weren’t perfect.
Nearly every aviator or aircrewman has suffered hair-raising encounters with appallingly stupid and dangerous leadership malpractice. We shake our heads— but no one is shocked. Is there a waiver that, during flight operations, relieves officers of their responsibility to conduct themselves like leaders?
The best division officers keep the big picture in mind at all times. They look ahead, setting goals and priorities to prevent the need for crisis management. They delegate to reduce workloads and ensure that each critical area receives attention. They assign responsibilities clearly, so that everyone knows what is expected; they continuously monitor the results. They wouldn’t think of doing everything themselves.
An outstanding aircraft commander functions exactly the same way. When a new situation develops, he (or she) reviews his options, soliciting inputs as time permits, and decides on a plan of attack. He briefs the crew and assigns tasks. The copilot might be assigned to fly the aircraft within specific parameters; another crew member to prepare several contingency fuel plans; a third to break
out the books.
Meanwhile, the aircraft commander monitors their performance and weighs his next steps. He limits his workload, allowing himself time to use his experience and common sense. Of course, he has already prepared his crew for as many contingencies as possible.
In contrast to a division officer, who may be completely unqualified to perform any of his unit’s work, the aircraft commander’s specialized skills are often the most critical to mission success. This reality probably contributes most to the “prima donna” epithet earned by some aviators; it certainly affords the opportunity to lead one’s crew by example.
But this entails far more than simply demonstrating one’s prowess in the air. No one is surprised when a senior pilot or flight officer has impressive abilities, but when 4,000-hour aviators show that they still hit the books, 400-hour nuggets take note. The best pilots are good copilots when they don’t have the controls; the best aviators maintain their composure and are always professional on the radios. They acknowledge and stay within their limits. They’re aggressive but disciplined.
Young flight crews imitate their superiors far more than most subordinates do. They watch everything and join in with enthusiasm. Nurse your scotch at the bar past midnight before your 0600 brief, and three weeks later your juniors will pound beers until dawn before theirs.
Aviators frequently make life-and- death decisions without the luxury of consulting their superiors. One night emergency at sea provides an unforgettable education. Add bad weather and 20 passengers and it just gets lonelier. While it’s nice to solicit and value everyone’s inputs, the aircraft commander has to make the decisions and must be unequivocally supported.
We may later question his or her judgment, but we must never compromise the imperative to command. Further, any aircraft commander unable to earn and keep the respect commensurate with this authority shouldn't be one. Flying under such leadership frightens and demoralizes a crew to the point of danger.
The commanding officer’s designation of an aircraft commander requires a unique trust and confidence. Standard operating procedures and regulations will never substitute for the aircraft commander’s judgment; one can’t legislate headwork. Commanding officers who oversee aviation operations must apply
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the principles of command—especially accountability. Whether flight crews form for an entire deployment or change daily, the aircraft commander must answer for the crew’s welfare, performance, and readiness. Aviation training should be directed toward this ultimate goal from day one.
These facts underscore the absurdity of designating inadequate aviators “on paper only” to punch tickets for their careers. This practice kills crews and tarnishes our wings.
Mastering sophisticated technologies merely dreamed of today, tomorrow’s aircraft commanders will operate in ever- deadlier and less-predictable environments, often in combination with bewildering arrays of joint and international forces. Flight crews already simultaneously work multiple levels of internal and external communication links; they are saturated with information yet pressured with less and less time to make decisions. Aviators, like all naval officers, will lead in a world of frightening complexity and accelerating change.
This staggering leadership challenge is really nothing new; it’s a tradition. Generations of Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard officers have led small teams, armed with their era’s newest technology, into the hostile and rapidly changing unknown. The gadgetry changes but the leadership doesn't; in gun turrets, rifle squads, and torpedo rooms, our predecessors hammered out its time-honored fundamentals. We need look no further for the key to good crew coordination.
They might never admit it, but superior naval aviators and flight officers, like other superior officers, endlessly critique themselves. They wonder how they’d judge themselves as a peer. They question their readiness for the emergency when—not if—it comes.
Aviators constantly review that last approach, qualification period, or check- ride. It’s worth also asking how well you handled that difficult copilot or what the climate is like in your aircraft. Is it a jungle in there? How was your leadership on your last flight? Through its impact on the team’s performance, that leadership is ultimately your most important contribution to safe-mission success. That’s why they call us aircraft commanders.
Lieutenant Frank is a flight instructor with Training Squadron Six at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Florida. Previously, he served with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Four at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily.