On December 28, 1978, United Airlines Flight 173, a McDonnell Douglas DC–8-61 with 189 souls on board, was approaching Oregon’s Portland International Airport. When the landing gear was deployed, it extended with an abnormally loud clunk, unexpected vibration, and a noticeable yaw to the right. The captain aborted the approach to diagnose the problem and prepare the flight attendants and passengers for the possibility of an emergency landing.
The crew investigated the problem while maneuvering southeast of the airport in a triangular pattern at 5,000 feet msl for approximately an hour. Although there were several comments made by the first officer and flight engineer about the dwindling fuel reserve, the captain apparently was so preoccupied by the landing gear malfunction that the gravity of these comments did not have any impact until it was too late. All four engines flamed-out as the result of fuel exhaustion, and the airplane crashed in a wooded, suburban neighborhood. The good news is that there was no fire, which helps to explain why there were only 10 fatalities and 24 injuries.
This was a watershed accident for several reasons, not the least of which is that it led to cockpit resource management, now known as crew resource management (CRM). Simply stated, this is a training philosophy that encourages pilots to take advantage of all available resources during the course of a flight. It also stresses the importance of teamwork and leadership when more than one crewmember is involved.
Of particular interest during CRM training is the focus placed on the need for subordinate crewmembers to be assertive when safety is an issue, especially when time is of the essence. Too many first officers (and other crewmembers, including flight attendants) are respectful and subservient to a fault. Had the co-pilot and flight engineer on United Flight 173 been more vocal and emphatic about the fuel state of the aircraft, this accident likely would not have darkened headlines.
My good friend, Al Desrosiers, was the first officer on a TWA Boeing 707 flight being vectored during a night approach into Honolulu many years ago. The aircraft had been cleared to 2,000 feet msl on a heading that led away from Oahu and toward the dark Pacific. As the aircraft descended through 3,000 feet, Al dutifully called out, “Three for two,” fully expecting the captain to modulate the steep descent. When the airplane passed through 2,000 feet at more than 2,000 fpm, Al looked over at the captain, who seemed to be “in another world.” Al called out loudly and clearly, “Captain, we’re less than 60 seconds from swimming, and I don’t know how.” Obviously not shy and without waiting for a response, Al grabbed the control wheel with his right hand and hauled back. He also grabbed a fistful of thrust levers with his left hand and pushed forward. Wings flexing in response, the big Boeing bottomed out and began climbing. Now that is being assertive. I do not know how that captain reacted to having his co-pilot wrest control of his airplane, but if I had been him, I would have been very grateful.
Another tragic example of an accident resulting from the failure of crewmembers to be sufficiently assertive in expressing their concerns is Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509, a Boeing 747 that departed London for Milan on December 22, 1999. Shortly after takeoff, the captain followed a failed attitude indicator into a 90-degree banked left turn. The first officer, whose attitude indicator displayed correctly, said and did nothing. The flight engineer, however, noticed the discrepancy between the captain’s attitude indicator and the two other attitude instruments on the panel. He called, “roll,” but failed to voice warnings with sufficient urgency to arrest the captain’s attention. The aircraft exploded on impact.
One could conclude that the lessons learned from these accidents apply only to airline operations; they also apply to general aviation. They obviously apply to two-man crews operating an aircraft requiring a second in command. They also can be implemented whenever there are two pilots in the cockpit for any reason, such as when flying under the hood with a safety pilot, when receiving flight instruction, or when two pilots are flying together for pleasure. These lessons can be applicable even when a second pilot is in the back seat. A second pilot should never be bashful about being assertive when concerned about the safety of flight. Never hesitate to speak up and state your concern with appropriate persistence until there is clear and safe resolution.
A problem at times, however, can be establishing an acceptable balance between respect for authority and the appropriate level of assertiveness. As many accidents have demonstrated, failure to speak up when appropriate can have dire consequences.
Barry Schiff retired from TWA in 1998 after a 34-year career. He flew the Lockheed Constellation, Boeing 747, and was check captain on the Boeing 767.