Aircraft Accidents and the Novelties

Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying, “The only source of knowledge is experience.”  I thought of this as I read an article a few months back about two EasyJet A320 pilots in Great Britain.  The female Captain was twenty-six years of age, while the male First Officer was nineteen.  I am sure I’ll be labeled a youth-aphobe (or something like that), but it seems to me we are constantly throwing caution to the wind these days and settling for novelties.  The Captain is young; it’s unlikely she has a lot of jet aircraft experience.  The First Officer was seven years younger, just old enough to drive and here he is flying 220-plus passengers 35,000 feet in the air.

These two young people are novelties, like the first all-female flight crews or first brother and sister flight crews.  They appear to have more to do with the Guinness records than accomplishments.  Common sense dictates that these milestones are irrelevant, perhaps counterproductive, when focusing on safety.  At what point does the novelty get too preposterous?  Perhaps when the first legally blind, all Octogenarian flight crew to land an A380 on an aircraft carrier will be the breaking point.  I hope it stops before that.

Doogie Howser shouldn’t be performing surgery; Will Robinson shouldn’t fly airplanes.  It’s not that young geniuses aren’t talented (or perhaps they are just outfitted with good timing), it’s just that they haven’t enough real-world experience and the maturity born of practice and time, to be trusted with the lives of our families.  Novelties are only acceptable at circuses and on reality shows; there are no substitutes for skill born of time.  Experience and maturity enhance safety.

Experience is not quantifiable; one cannot measure experience, even when placed against maturity.  Once the novelty of flying a jet airliner has worn off, when it has been replaced with the harshness of pending disaster with the lives of others at stake, can the nineteen-year old pilot handle the responsibility?  Can he be honest with himself about his limitations or will he lock up?  Is he smart enough to trust his training, to turn off the technology if need be, swallow his pride and fly the airplane?  Do the passengers want to take that chance that he can?

I recently spoke with an aviation lawyer; he had some run-ins with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aviation safety inspector (ASI) or two, concerning his client.  This gentleman (the client) was an upstanding aviator who only did what was right, 183% of the time; whose credentials were impeccable and morals beyond question.  Does this adequately paint the picture?

The question came up about experience, one where the attorney suspected the actions of an FAA ASI, calling him inexperienced, impulsive, unprofessional.  Furthermore, he said that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigator (AI) consistently showed more professionalism, experience and empathy, as compared to the FAA ASIs the attorney had dealt with.  My first thought was, ‘Hmm, I wonder if this attorney moonlights as a First Officer on an EasyJet A320?’

To be clear, this wasn’t a discussion limited to ASIs conducting surveillance on air operators, but to all general aviation folks, as well, to which his client was one.  This particular discussion started out focused on post-accident investigations and their aftermath and segued into the aforementioned ASI’s contentious actions.

I am a former NTSB AI and a former FAA ASI for the FAA’s Flight Standards division; I should have been put on the defensive, felt honored or both.  At first, I felt the blood rise in my face and got my back up (whatever that means); I wanted to go all New Yorker on the attorney.  Instead, I tried reverting back to my instructor mode, hoping to make a teaching moment out of the comment.  A dozen famous sayings ran through my head: “Don’t judge, lest you …”; “Walk a mile in a person’s moccasins …”; “People in glass houses …”; each of which would have been an acceptable comeback, which would have put an end to it, while at the same time concluding the ability to further the discussion.

This attorney saw the world of aviation through a certain prism.  His client wears a halo; his client is without fault; the FAA is a big arrogant meanie who doesn’t play nice.  However, my past experience as an FAA ASI taught me that there are no halo-wearing clients; that I could tell the attorney true stories about other attorneys’ clients whose misdemeanors resulted in injury, destruction and/or death, mainly because the FAA ASI didn’t stop them in time.  All the attorney would have to do is accept his client’s human nature to understand why the FAA is full of arrogant meanies, that every FAA ASI has had his or her share of attorney’s clients thumbing their noses at the ASI before climbing into their aircraft for an afternoon of death and destruction with, e.g. a lack of helicopter familiarization training, packing too many parachutists into the jump plane or flying without the proper instrumentation; that the arrogant FAA ASI meanie has seen these types of client misdemeanors … A LOT.

Once that fact is understood, then the discussion can be elevated to discover why the FAA ASIs are meanies; HINT: they have to be; it’s their job to oversee safety.

It can also be made clear why the NTSB AI is so nice.  HINT: it’s because NTSB AIs do not enforce the regulations.  Heck, the average NTSB AI doesn’t even have to know the regulations and therefore doesn’t have to know when the client has declined to wear his or her halo.

Are there inexperienced FAA ASIs?  Absolutely, there are many.  Why are there FAA ASIs who shoot from the hip, are too inflexible, or are hard to talk to?  Most often, it’s due to a lack of opportunity to learn from a like event; that the event that is being mishandled can be turned into a learning moment and thus give the ASI a chance to learn from his/her mistake.  If the ASI refuses to budge, there is an opportunity for the attorney to be professional and address the issue with FAA Legal Counsel or even the ASI’s front line management to reconcile the problem.  Any which way, it can turn into a learning moment for the ASI, the client, and, yes, even the attorney, who may be reminded that there are three sides to any argument: Side A, Side B and the Truth.

How long does it take to become experienced?  For some, it may take weeks while for others it takes an entire career.  For some, like me, my career never stopped being a learning experience.  During my years in FAA’s Flight Standards, I saw dozens of senior ASIs retire, their experience and knowledge lost forever.  Twenty years – the average for a career – is not a long period of time; that becomes evident as we get older and time moves rapidly.  In aviation, a career passes quickly; twenty years is nothing.  Before you know it, it’s your retirement party, the cake is consumed and as you walk out the door, coworkers’ memories of you last as long as it takes for the door to close behind you.

Yet, no matter what your occupation, your experience never leaves you, even after retirement.  The only restriction you have is the one you place on yourself to know your limits, accept your ignorance and respect your elder coworkers for what they can teach you, that knowledge you can glean from them.

Is nineteen too young to fly an airliner?  Yes, I think so.  Is nineteen too young to be an FAA ASI?  Double yes.  Is nineteen too young to be an NTSB AI?  Again, yes.  Not because people aren’t smart at nineteen.  It’s because at nineteen one is just way too young to have enough experience. 

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and the Novelties”

  1. “When you stop learning and asking questions, it’s time to get out of whatever it is you’re doing.” – Some of the best advice I ever recieved.

    1. True. We often fall into a false sense of acceptance of how things are, refusing to question. That’s how we fall into complacency.

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