A Question of Safety

The DC-l0 moves into position at the end of the runway awaiting word from the air traffic controller. The passengers are restless and they fidget in their seats anticipating the takeoff. The control tower gives word to the captain that he is cleared for takeoff and now he pushes the throttles forward for the power to build. He releases the plane's brakes and proceeds down the runway. It takes a couple of minutes to reach cruising altitude from the takeoff roll, but the pilot's work began hours before this moment. Careful preflight pre­paration is necessary to keep this flight as safe as humanly possible. Alternate plans have to be anticipated for all kinds of in-flight emergencies. The captain and his crew have a re­sponsibility to their passengers to perform in a professional and safe manner.

            Statistically, airline travel has been one of the safest forms of transportation. But compared on an hour-to-

            hour basis, the airline safety record is less

            encouraging, and when it is recognized that the average passenger is knowingly subjected to massive 
            train­ing, maintenance, and design problems that should be corrected but aren’t.... 1

Fear of flying is a common fear among twenty-five million Americans and about one quarter of these people have had an un­pleasant experience in the air.2 Others certainly formed opinions about flying by reading or hearing details of air disasters. When a passenger steps on board a commercial airliner, can he/she be assured of having a competent pilot and crew behind the controls? Is the pilot and his crew physically and psycho­logically ready to perform their tasks? Have they completed and been given a proper and thorough flight test?

Federal Aviation Regulation Part 61.23 states that an air transport pilot is required to have a Class I medical exami­nation every six months. 3 A psychological test is part of this exam so as to determine if the pilot can handle the stress and responsibility of flying a large aircraft.  The psychological test undertakes the task of determining the pilot's maturity and stability emotionally and his judgment and decision making while working under pressure.

What about stress, strain, and responsibility associated with flying? Bill Scharnegal is a flight engineer who has worked for twenty-six years with National Airlines, now Pan American Airlines. He has nineteen thousand six hundred hours of flight time in various airliners and is presently engineer for a DC-l0. -. He said, " If the captain runs a tight ship and is amiable, the crew feels less tension. If the captain is not sharp, it can make a five-hour trip to California seem like ten hours. The idea of responsibility is universal throughout the industry. We have important people as passengers, not just vacationers. We have a duty to them to reach their destination safely and on time. "When asked how he would rate the pilots he has flown with, Bill said, "I would say nine-tenths of the pilots are good to excellent, one tenth would be fair to good." What is the most severe problem you have had to put up with? Bill said, " Lack of sleep. Flights that takeoff at eight o'clock or ten o'clock in the morning pose no problem. But the late night or very early morning flights arrive at their destination during daylight hours and most flight personnel cannot or have a difficult time of sleeping during the day." 4

Lack of sleep is one of many causes of occupational fa­tigue. Conflicting or personal factors are associated with fa­tigue. Frustration, anger, and depression are seen in different states among flight personnel. Professional problems as well as personal problems can create feelings of frustration, neurosis, even depression within the mind of the pilot. Some psychological problems develop among personalities that are not detected by a conventional medical examination. The problem stems from the fact that there are limited psychiatrists avail­able that have sufficient knowledge of aviation medicine.

There are instances of minor problems that occur which become, a major situation for the pilot and crew to handle. The following incidents are examples of various problems in the aviation industry. A DC-8, flying at thirty-three thousand feet, had a problem with the pressurization system. This was no problem typically, except the flight crew did not understand the workings of the system. The passengers were threatened with a lack of oxygen, so the captain made an emergency descent through assigned altitudes. This was not a justified emerg­ency since the crew should have a complete knowledge of the pressurization system. Records indicated that an unqualified check airman checked the flight engi­neer. 5

A problem that occurred at United Airlines was the procedure of using the words" take off power" when ordering the power set to maximum thrust. Investigations of accidents indicated that this procedure confused the flight crew. If under stress conditions the captain requested" take off power" the crew would respond by setting the power to idle thrust. The words " maximum thrust " is used today. 6

          In 1974, the National Transportation Safety Board stated that unprofessional conduct by pilots had been a
          major problem in numerous air carrier acci­dents, stating that, Investigations have revealed that crew behavior
          ranges from casual acceptance of the flight environment to flagrant disregard for prescribed procedures and
          operating practices •••• "

          Aviation Week and Space Technology wrote, the cockpit voice recorders recovered from recent crashes have
          revealed a shocking, fatal inattention to navigation of the aircraft.

It is difficult to understand, how a flight crew could act casual or disregard certain flight procedures. Should a pilot and his crew is as responsible as a fireman or policeman who put their lives in jeopardy everyday? Would we the public con­done a fireman or policeman if he acted irresponsible? It is acknowledged in the aviation industry that the pilot's job is difficult and that the pilot needs to possess special aptitudes and qualities. When a pilot finishes his training and receives his certificate, he believes he has reached his ideal. His adaptation to the aeronautical environment is the most important aspect of his training. If the pilot, during his learning process has not conformed to the environment, then it is dangerous for his health and for flying safety.

The following examples show how a casual attitude towards flight procedures can lead to a major catastrophe. A pilot in control of a Trans World Airline flight heading into Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., was given a standard approach clearance, but he had no idea what it meant. The pilot descended below minimum safe altitude and the copilot questioned this move. The plane hit a mountain and all on board were lost. The crew had a chance to save the flight but they did not respond quickly enough. The pilot for some reason did not cross-check or verify where his location was or substantiate that what he was doing 'I was correct, even when alerted by the copilot. The pilot had relatively low time and experience as a pilot and together with inappropriate flight procedures, a tragedy occurred. 9

A DC-9 crashed at Charlotte, North Carolina while making a landing approach. The descending altitude readings were not called out during the approach, which is standard procedure. The cockpit voice recorder revealed that the flight crew was engaged in a casual conversation during the most critical part of the flight. 10

An article in the Trentonian, September 24,1981, UPI, N.Y. titled; "Pilots at Fault" states; "Federal officials say pilots of a jetliner and a small plane that nearly collided over New Jersey in August, were at fault for not looking out for each other." Stated further on in the article; " Thomas Slocum (a safety inspector) said, the pilots were at fault for, not looking' under normal' see and be seen rules. The regional counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration will determine if either pilot faces a penalty." 11

Were these problems a result of just inadequate training or were there other unknown causes? Is it the gamble of putting the lives of the pilot, flight crew, and passengers on the line to gain the large financial savings of the situation? Questionable maintenance practices, uncor­rected design defects, and inadequate training can reflect this on. Maybe these and psychological conflicts together create problems. In a test of five hundred flight personnel, private conflicts were pre­sent in fifty-three percent of these people. 12 Private life problems varied in aspects such as love life, family conflicts, illness of someone dear, material cares, etc., Most of the flight personnel rationalized that problems stem from occupational fatigue linked to overloaded schedules, sometimes to organic diseases, and some to the "crazy" civilization we live in.

In conclusion, we know that the system of educating the pilot is not only in knowing how to handle the aeronautical en­vironment, but to recognize that he is human and has a potential of making a mistake. Proper training techniques have to be in­stilled in all the instructors and improper training recognized by the safety inspectors throughout the industry. If just one of these persons fails in giving proper training or check rides than the probability of disaster is inevitable. Professional and personal conflicts, which can occur at any time during a pilot’s career, have to be talked out with a person who is not only sympathetic, but also professionally trained. The pilot has to be objective and if a flight inspector turns him down during a check, he should recognize it for what it means. He should: be, if he is a professional, willing to accept additional training to improve areas that he is weak in. Most major errors come from a multitude of minor mistakes. There are many reports of investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board documenting this, not only in commercial aviation, but in gen­eral aviation as well.

Few experiences can compare to the thrill and beauty of flight. Whether you are in command of a large airliner, small light aircraft, glider or balloon you have to respect the in­genuity of man and the surrounding environment of aviation. Admiral Marshall stated it best by saying, " Flying in itself is not dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect. "


1    Rodney Stich, The Unfriendly Skies, (California, Diablo Western Press, Inc., 1980), p. XII, Introduction.

2    Manuel J. Smith, Ph.D., Kicking the Fear Habit, (New York, Dial Press, 1977), p. 65.

3    Private Pilot Manual, (Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., 1978), Chapter 7, p.l0.

4     Bill Scharnegal, interviewed by Bruce Killmer, (Hopewell, N.J.),  9:00 P.M., October 2, 1981.

5     Stich, Ope cit., p. 49.

6     Ibid. , p.59, 60.

7     Ibid. , p. 267·

8     Ibid. , p. 266.

9     Ibid. , p. 260.

10    Ibid. , p. 260.

11     "Pilots at Fault," The Trentonian (September 24, 1981), p. 18.

12    C. Blanc, E. Lafontaine, R. Laplane, " Psychological and Psychiatric Problems 
        in Aviation," Flight Safety, Vol. I, No. 3, 1968, p. 15, 16.

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