AOPA - Career Pilot

Professional Training

Crew Resource Management

Communication is the key


Cockpit resource management, crew resource management, crew coordination — whatever term is used, the concept is one of the most important a pilot can learn.

The days of the all-powerful captain and his crewmate, the vice president in charge of gear and flaps, are (thankfully) over. Captain Bligh is no more and the era of cockpit communication has arrived.

Crew coordination — two people in the cockpit working together — is one of the hardest concepts for new jet pilots to master. It's difficult for many to relinquish what they consider control after so many hours of juggling the controls, the charts, and the checklists while tuning the radios, talking to ATC, and maintaining some measure of situational awareness. To be told to just fly the airplane and depend on a partner to take care of the details can be mind-boggling and difficult to deal with. There is an almost overwhelming tendency to quickly accomplish tasks and checklists without consulting the other crewmember.

OK, so what is CRM?

The FAA believes CRM to be so vital that it is constantly evaluated as an ongoing part of the practical test for an airline transport pilot certificate or type rating. In the Airline Transport Pilot and Aircraft Type Rating Practical Test Standards the FAA has this to say about CRM:

CRM "refers to the effective use of all available resources: human resources, hardware, and information." Human resources "includes all other groups routinely working with the cockpit crew (or pilot) who are involved in decisions that are required to operate a flight safely. These groups include, but are not limited to: dispatchers, cabin crewmembers, maintenance personnel, and air traffic controllers." CRM is not a single task. CRM is a set of competencies, which must be evident in all tasks in the practical test standards as applied to the single pilot or the multicrew operation. "CRM competencies, grouped into three clusters of observable behavior, are:

  1. Communications processes and decisions.
  2. Building and maintenance of a flight team.
  3. Workload management and situational awareness."

If only one word could be used to describe this concept the word would have to be communication. At any time during the flight an observer (sim instructors are great at this) should be able to question either crewmember on the game plan and how it's going, and get a comprehensive — and correct — answer. To be sure, there must be a pilot in command. Someone has to have the final authority over the flight, but beyond that, all actions taken in the cockpit should be discussed and understood by both crewmembers before the deed is done. This is not to say that there must be a lengthy discussion over every little action as it happens. Some items fall under "standard" crew briefings. For example, on the before-takeoff briefing, the flying pilot will brief the nonflying (sometimes called monitoring) pilot on the type of takeoff (VFR or IFR); the actions to be taken to accomplish the takeoff (who will apply power, who will trim power); the speeds to be observed (V1, VR); and the actions to be taken in event of an emergency or abnormality during the takeoff. Approaches are briefed in a similar manner.

Who started all this?

United Airlines was one of the first developers and proponents of CRM, although the company called it Command Leadership Resource Training. Back in the 1970s United began rating the personalities of its crewmembers in order to help the pilots understand their personal strengths and weaknesses. Later, simulator sessions were videotaped to illustrate to pilots what forms of communication — or lack thereof — were used on the flight deck. Many captains were appalled by the dictatorial attitude they conveyed, whether purposely or not. Other airlines soon jumped on the bandwagon, as did corporate flight departments trained by FlightSafety International. Today, as evidenced by the FAA's emphasis in the practical test standards (PTS), CRM has become an integral part of flight deck operations.

When it works and when it fails

The dramatic failure of a crew to follow good CRM procedures can be seen in the crash of an Air Florida flight into the 14th Street Bridge after departure from Washington, D.C.'s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on January 13, 1982. The first officer on that flight repeatedly alerted the captain that the takeoff did not seem normal and the engines were not developing adequate power. The captain ignored all the warnings and the first officer was not forceful in his admonitions. We all know the outcome of that mistake.

One of the best examples of a crew working together to maximize its ability to deal with an emergency situation took place aboard United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. Capt. Al Haynes and his cohorts in the cockpit did a tremendous job of getting a severely crippled DC 10 onto the runway. The crew used every resource it had available and combined the experience of four pilots to deal with events as they happened. No one had ever had a total hydraulic failure in a DC 10 — United's maintenance gurus had a hard time understanding that all three hydraulic systems were gone when the crew radioed them for help — so the pilots were faced with an increasingly serious situation with no written procedures to assist them. Haynes readily credits his Command Leadership Resource Training as a factor in the outcome of the flight.

Another well-known flight that demonstrated the values of CRM was the zip-top Aloha Airlines Boeing 737, which suffered an explosive decompression and fuselage rupture on April 28, 1988. The crew on that flight worked together as a team and, even though communication was difficult, dealt with a situation for which there were no written directions.

What's it all mean?

Just about any pilot can deal with the emergencies set forth in the aircraft flight manual and the checklists for emergency and abnormal situations. It doesn't take a lot of management ability or originality to pick up the checklist and read. When an emergency occurs that isn't covered by a checklist — and the worst ones aren't — only communication and cooperation among crewmembers will save the day.