Professionals at Work

From the BBC:

A woman who was partially sucked out of a window of a US passenger plane after an engine exploded in mid-air has died.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a window, wings and fuselage were damaged. Seven passengers were injured.

Initial findings say an engine fan blade was missing. In a recording, one of the pilots can be heard saying “there is a hole and someone went out”.

That’s the background. Now listen to this conversation between the female pilot and an air traffic controller at Philadelphia airport:

You can hear the pilot struggling to contain the emotion in her voice, but she does a tremendous job of keeping calm. The guy in the tower is as cool as ice, and that’s due to professionalism and training rather than the fact he’s safe on the ground and not up there in a crippled plane. That the pilot, Tammy Jo Shults, managed to handle this situation brilliantly perhaps ought not to surprise:

Shults applied for the Air Force after she graduated. She wasn’t allowed to test to become a pilot, but the Navy welcomed her. She was one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy’s history, and the first woman to fly F-18s. She later became an instructor.

She’s now an American hero, and deservedly so. I suspect Trump will shortly be hanging a medal around her neck and saying something well-meaning but cack-handed as he does it.

I find the calmness with which Shults and her interlocutor handle the situation almost mesmerising, but I often find that when watching a real professional go about their job. Oddly, the scene I most enjoyed from the the film Captain Phillips is when the corpsman aboard the US Navy ship examines Tom Hanks for the first time. The way she went about giving him direct, clear, and repeated instructions with completely calm, professional body-language made me think this was a very good actress. Or:

Tom Hanks claimed that the scene of Captain Richard Phillips’ medical examination was improvised on the spot with real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert, who was told to simply follow her usual procedure.

Which explained it. A friend later told me he’d also been struck by the same scene. Calmness is vital to thinking clearly, and the best way to remain calm is to follow an established procedure and practice as much as possible. If you panic you’ll make mistakes and, panic being highly infectious, you’ll cause other people to make mistakes too.

A Russian friend was flying from Paris to Lagos with Air France once, and a Nigerian lady started having some sort of seizure in her seat. The passengers alerted the stewardess who, frankly, had no idea what to do and her body language let the entire aircraft know it. The passengers began to get agitated, and the stewardess (who was not joined by a couple of others) go the lady to lie down in the aisle. Then she started going into convulsions, and the stewardesses started to panic. They called the head steward, a Frenchman, who arrived and immediately panicked himself. The passengers lost control of themselves and started screaming and shouting. Somehow the air crew regained control of the situation, the woman stopped flapping around, and she got back to her seat. My Russian friend was very unimpressed, and said he had little confidence the pilots would do much better under duress. Given Air France’s safety record, nor have I.

By contrast, I was once flying Aeroflot from Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk when my companion ate the wrong thing in the in-flight meal and had an allergic reaction. Her throat began to swell and her breathing got difficult. Normally she carries medicine with her, but either didn’t have it with her or forgot where it was. I alerted the stewardess – the usual slim woman with bleached-blonde hair and painted nails – who took one look and asked my companion firmly what she’d eaten. She asked a few more questions, never raising her voice, then calmly told her colleague to fetch the medicine chest. My companion’s face was swelling up and she was breaking out in spots. A helpful chap in the seat behind thought she was simply airsick and offered her a tumbler of cheap cognac, which I still laugh about today. The stewardess returned with the medicine chest, they confirmed with my companion that it was the correct one, and gave her the tablets. Within a few minutes everything was back to normal, and only those sat nearby had any idea anything had happened. Aeroflot might be the butt of a lot of jokes, but the air crew knew their stuff and didn’t panic, and you can be damned sure the pilots wouldn’t either even if they plane had lost a wing, was upside down, and on fire.

I’ve noticed in my professional life that Frenchmen are prone to panicking under pressure, and letting their emotions get the better of them. By contrast, I don’t think I ever saw a Russian man panic, and there are numerous videos of Russians walking nonchalantly away from horrific car crashes and this legendary one of a pilot lighting up a cigarette after ejecting from his MiG-29. That’s not to say Russians never panic and Frenchmen always do, but propensity to panic is probably cultural in part, and training is needed to overcome it.

Whoever they may be, I find something awesome about a professional calmly going about his or her business, especially in a situation which would render most people unable to function at all. That might be because absolute professionalism is something I don’t see as much as I should. Clearly, the Americans flying planes and manning control towers still have it in spades. Good for them.

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21 thoughts on “Professionals at Work

  1. I think I know which airlines I’d prefer to fly with if something went wrong. And I definitely know which ones I wouldn’t!

  2. Tim, I think you’d enjoy reading QF32, written by the pilot of the Quantas A380 that had a massive engeine explosion on takeoff from Singapore.
    It is a masterpiece of trained professional behaviour in a crisis that was so nearly a complete loss. I love the pilot’s comment soon after the failure, when the copilot is listing all the failed systems (thousands), and the piliot syas “Never mind all those, they cannot help us now. Tell me whatever you can find that is still operating!” That enabled him t regain steering and attitude control.
    After landing, he apologised to all the passengers for the delay, and gave his personal mobile number,in case any of the passengers thought they were being ill-treated on accomodation or (replacement) onward travel. None phoned to complain, not one, only to thank him.
    A hero, in the true sense of the word.

    As a contrast: the Air France ‘drivers’ who crashed their stalled Airbus into the South Atlantic ‘cos they kept pulling back “to make it go up!”. I cannot consider them pilots. The complete opposite of Richard and Solly.

  3. A good example of russian calmness was Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov, from the Kursk disaster. ‘greetings to all, no need to despair’.

  4. Nous sommes trahis. Sauve qui peut. (Not the sort of French you learnt from the blessed HP sauce bottles of yore.)

  5. Re. ejection – there’s a US (navy?) training film on YouTube talking about ejection with real case studies, and the common thing to most dicey ejections which were survived was that the pilots had already made the decision to eject back in training so didn’t even think about it when they had a SHTF moment for real.

    The overall message of the film was that there was no shame in ejecting, and that split seconds can be the difference between life and death – just get it all squared away in your head beforehand and you won’t hesitate to pull the handle.

  6. As a contrast: the Air France ‘drivers’ who crashed their stalled Airbus into the South Atlantic ‘cos they kept pulling back “to make it go up!”. I cannot consider them pilots.

    If you’ve ever worked with French people in positions of authority in French companies, you would be utterly unsurprised by what transpired in that cockpit. “I’m in charge and therefore I know better than anyone or anything and can do as I please” is the prevailing attitude.

  7. “If you’ve ever worked with French people in positions of authority in French companies,… ”
    Indeed I have, and it was a grim experience. A supplier to Airbus…
    An English colleague with me once stopped mid-corridor, between the French ‘engineers’ and French ‘technicians’ and mimed unzipping a gap and stepping through., zipping up the wall afterwards. Never the two parts must meet.
    Software version control was a desk piled high with hundreds of 8″ floppy disks, if you were lucky, the junior technician doing the build picked one roughly similar to that approved & tested. Enjoy your flights…

  8. “I’m in charge and therefore I know better than anyone or anything and can do as I please” is the prevailing attitude.

    Not just the French. I’ve seen it in jobsworth Brits – a firm belief that by taking the position they magically acquire all the experience, knowledge and competence that the position should require.

  9. It’s training, training and more training. The head of trauma when I trained always carried a liter of normal saline, a wide gauge needle for a drip and a sterile scalpel blade. He managed to drag a member of his four back from the brink of death on the golf links by opening him up for internal cardiac massage. He was fast, calm and knew when to give up (Good night, sweet prince, may angels sing thee to thy rest). Those were the days of minimum eighty hour working weeks but the surgeons who survived had seen everything, done everything and could do it fast and efficiently. The current lot, trained on shorter hours, often have to think too much.
    Respect, Dr Kn

  10. One of the things I most admire about aviation is the culture of improvement taking precident over blame – what other industry does full root cause investigations for every accident that occurs, the results of which make their way to front-line pilots during daily briefings? Precious few.

    Those reports are public too -AF447 has been mentioned, before it’s chalked down to French pilots being incompetent, as usual it’s far a far more complicated litany of errors lining up to spell catastrophe. QF32 also was fortunate in that it had several aircrews on board to deal with their incident and the aircraft was still airworthy enough to fly for many hours whilst they ran hundreds of checklists.

    Having a number of flying hours myself, I sometimes am bemused at words like hero and saviour being used by the media to describe actions that any licenced pilot would do under the same circumstances, though I don’t begrudge them the praise. However, if pilots are being hailed as heroes, more often than not an engineer somewhere is going to be feeling dreadful for having dropped the ball, though this generally happens many months/years down the line when the investigations uncover the facts of what happened.

    On the ability to not panic – those i’ve worked with from a military background are far more clear headed when something unexpected happens – and I agree that this is usually down to training, regimens and the default position of stopping to assess the situation before anything else is done. Training done right can give a sense of familiarity even to unforeseen situations, which allows the mind to process information rather than melt-down.

  11. If she was on the F-18 in the US Navy she’d have done carrier landings, never mind just handling engine-out approaches – On to a deck where all of the ship’s regular lighting is turned OFF as it would be in a warzone.

    A reason why the Navy might be more liberal in terms of who it takes as pilots is that that facet of the job is actually harder – All of the work of an Air Force pilot with the added frisson of landing back on a football field – You never know who has naturally got the knack for it and so you lose a few of your prejudices about who might.

  12. I think the data on this has been analysed. About 10% will, even with minimal training, act well. About 70% can be taught to more or less do the right thing. And an irreducible rump of about 20% will fuck up however much you train them.
    Problem is: you might only find out if the guy is in the 20% when it’s too late.

  13. It’s interesting reading reports of railway accidents in years gone by how effective training generally makes people, acting in the aftermath of disaster, carry on with their duties despite the panic and chaos around them. Signalmen remain in post sending “obstruction danger” signals even after their signal box has been damaged in a collision. Badly injured fireman and guards take action to protect their trains by walking back along the track with flags and detonators. Drivers stay with run away trains attempting to regain control (Driver John Axon is still a local hero where I live in the High Peak).

  14. You never know who has naturally got the knack for it and so you lose a few of your prejudices about who might.

    The prejudice against female fighter pilots is based on the fact that they mostly aren’t any good. The US Navy covers this up, often with disastrous consequences. While I don’t doubt Ms. Shults is a very good commercial pilot, it’s impossible to trust anything the US Navy says about their female fighter pilots due to decades of them being “passed up” despite not being qualified.

  15. I reckon you’d appreciate this video if you haven’t already seen it: Thomson Boeing 757 has a bird strike at takeoff and the whole sequence up to landing is captured.

    I did, thanks! If I were a management guru type I’d show that to my audience as an example of the importance of good, clear, communication in managing any situation. They talk to each other almost non-stop, minimising the chances of any misunderstanding. Brilliant work.

  16. Training done right can give a sense of familiarity even to unforeseen situations, which allows the mind to process information rather than melt-down.

    Yup, which is the whole point of the helicopter escape training I described here. I’d not want to put my training into practice, but having some familiarity with the situation it ought to buy me a vital few seconds.

    On the ability to not panic – those i’ve worked with from a military background are far more clear headed when something unexpected happens – and I agree that this is usually down to training, regimens and the default position of stopping to assess the situation before anything else is done.

    A pal of mine commanded a troop of Royal Marines in the Iraq War invasion and said when the shooting starts it is literally umanageable chaos you have no hope of controlling. So you concentrate on the next small task, then the next, then the next, all adding up to something which needs to be done. He said it’s impossible to try to take the whole situation in at once, so you break it down into manageable chunks – just as the training prescribed.

  17. I’ve seen it in jobsworth Brits – a firm belief that by taking the position they magically acquire all the experience, knowledge and competence that the position should require.

    Indeed, it seems to be a feature of any modern organisation over a certain size.

  18. “I’m in charge and therefore I know better than anyone or anything and can do as I please” is the prevailing attitude.

    That perfectly describes the wastes of oxygen working for border force.

  19. 30years as cabin crew and did have a couple of close shaves. It is amazing how the training kicks in when needed and you know you are being watched by all the passengers for your reaction, so you have to look calm no matter what you are feeling inside. In the aftermath the excess adrenaline can do some strange things to your body!
    It’s good to be tested in situations like that, then you know what you are capable of.

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