It’s 1970. You’re the first officer on board an aeroplane and your captain has just made a lousy decision. What’ll you do? Follow your orders or speak up?
It wasn’t an easy choice back then. Captains were expected to be decisive, take charge and command. Here’s an extract from an airline’s procedure book from that era:
I guess the merit of the system was everyone knew who was boss. But what if the captain’s decisions were wrong? John Wayne had had a different approach, but it had never caught on:
But there’s a very serious side to this. A 1979 NASA safety workshop reviewed a series of crashes and concluded that many resulted from failures in interpersonal communication, leadership and decision making in the cockpit. Had captains used all the resources available to them and sought and listened to input from their crew, more than 70% of the crashes could have been avoided. Airlines began to acknowledge that:
It took a while for it to become mandatory, but training in cockpit resource management – the human factor in aviation – was born. It has since been expanded to include everyone in the crew, and more.
There’s information about the communication aspects of the training on several sites, like this one. Some of the issues it covers are – wow – powerful. I’m struck by the importance it lays on relationships – so encouraging others to talk and listening to them, and not ignoring their feelings or ideas. Politeness issues matter.
And as for John Wayne – well, he was ahead of his time in challenging his captain, but his people skills would be questionable today. A respectful communication style is vital.