Proficient Pilot

The most important wings

November 1, 2006

Aviation writer Barry Schiff retired from TWA in 1998.

Last year a British Airways Boeing 747-400 departed Los Angeles International Airport, experienced an engine fire almost immediately after liftoff, and continued on its merry way to England on three engines instead of four (see " Proficient Pilot: Obligated to Land," June 2005 Pilot). This passenger flight continues to make news. The Wall Street Journal recently was first to publish the air traffic control transcript of communications involving Flight 268.

There were two fascinating areas of communications. One involved the tower controller asking the departure controller, "Is he going?"

"He's going," said departure.

"If you would have [seen] what we saw out the window, you'd be amazed at that," said the tower controller.

The controller wasn't the only one taken by surprise. So was almost every airline pilot in America. Pilots know that the safest course of action following an engine failure is to land at the nearest suitable airport, which in this case would have been Los Angeles.

To me, though, the most incredible part of the transcript was when one of the pilots said to departure, "We have now shut down the number-two engine. We are going to consult our company and see what they require us to do." The company must have at least encouraged the captain to continue, because that is exactly what he did.

Some pilots might regard contacting the airline for advice as an excellent example of cockpit resource management. After all, CRM preaches that the captain should take advantage of all available information or assistance in the resolution of a problem involving flight safety.

That is unlikely in this case. Note that the captain did not say that he was going to ask for advice or assistance. He wanted to know what his company would require him to do.

I believe that most U.S. airline captains (especially those who have risen to the level of a Boeing 747-400 captain) know exactly what their airlines (as well as their passengers and fellow crewmembers) expect of them, and that is to conduct the flight in the safest possible manner. That would involve dumping fuel and landing at the nearest suitable airport (as required by the federal aviation regulations). By no stretch of the imagination would it involve embarking on an almost 5,000-nm flight in an impaired jetliner. (Boeing hung four engines on the 747 because it needs them.)

Complying with the desire of airline personnel in England to continue brings into question the British concept of pilot in command. I don't know what the British regulations do or do not require. I do know, however, that an American pilot in command "of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." Part 91.3(a) is not so much a regulation as it is a mandate.

This means that American pilots — and this includes general aviation pilots — must follow whatever they deem to be the safest course of action during any given set of circumstances. It also means that someone else may not usurp or undermine this command authority. Nor may a captain transfer that responsibility to someone else. I cannot imagine any airline pilot allowing his airline to denigrate or unduly influence his command authority. The captain should take advantage of CRM to help him arrive at the safest course of action, but the final decision rests squarely on his shoulders.

From my perspective, the captain of British Airways Flight 268 set a poor example of command authority and responsibility unless he truly believed and could demonstrate at a formal hearing that it was just as safe to continue over a long and lonely stretch of the North Atlantic on three engines as it was to land. I doubt if he could justify this to our NTSB.

Seventy to 80 percent of aircraft accidents are caused by pilot error. This means that the single greatest threat to safety is the pilot, colloquially known as the "nut behind the wheel" or the "first to arrive at the scene of the accident." Almost anyone can be taught the mechanics of flying and maneuvering an airplane, but not everyone understands the concept and consequences of being pilot in command.

An airline pilot spends years of apprenticeship in the right seat as a first officer learning about command authority by example and through training and osmosis. A private pilot receives no such training, and yet after only 50 to 70 hours of experience he must bear the same burden of responsibility for the safety of his passengers as the airline captain bears for his.

This explains why GA pilots must quickly learn and understand the principles of risk management and CRM and learn to continually apply them (even when flying alone). We must understand that the 180-degree turn or not taking off at all can at times be our most valuable safety tool.

TWA had a poster hanging in its dispatch offices where pilots reported for their flights. Above a photograph of a pair of gold command wings was emblazoned, "The Most Important Wings on an Airplane Are [Worn] by the Pilot."

The idea is to become an exceptional pilot who uses his exceptional judgment to avoid having to use his exceptional skill.

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