How would you define a “professional?” Is it someone who holds an advanced degree? Or is it more of an attitude, a state of mind, someone who maintains a radar lock on excellence in performance despite obstacles? One thing’s certain: in aviation, “professional” is synonymous with safety.
With lapses in professional behavior linked to a growing number of accidents and incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) added improving professionalism among pilots and air traffic controllers on its “Most Wanted List” of safety recommendations.
Some recent examples in which individuals deviated from standard operating procedures and best practices serve as a reminder of why industry must reinforce the highest standards of professionalism:
âž¤ Feb. 12, 2009. Fifty people were killed when Continental Connection/Colgan Air Flight 3407, a Bombardier Dash 8 (Q400) crashed on approach to Buffalo, N.Y. The NTSB determined numerous contributing factors to the accident, including: the captain’s incorrect stall recovery procedures and failure to effectively manage the flight, plus the flight crew’s violation of sterile cockpit procedures. The safety board’s recommendations included the need for airlines to provide leadership training for new captains and to develop guidance on professionalism in aircraft operations. This accident also led to Congressional probe of regional airline operations, pilot hiring and training requirements and paved the way to an FAA overhaul of outdated pilot flight/duty time rules.
âž¤ Aug. 8, 2009. Nine people died when an air tour helicopter and fixed-wing general aviation aircraft collided over the Hudson River. One factor in the probable cause of the accident: the controller working the GA aircraft was not fully engaged in his duties, having initiated a non-work-related telephone conversation.
âž¤ Oct. 23, 2009. The flight crew of Northwest Airlines Flight 188, with a total of 149 people on board, fails to communicate with air traffic controllers for 77 minutes and overshoots destination airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minn.) by 150 miles. NTSB determined the pilots were engaged in a conversation about their new duty schedules. Distracted, they failed to monitor radio frequencies and aircraft instruments as well as the progress of the flight.
In contrast, USAirways Flight 1549 is an example of aviation professionalism at its finest. On Jan. 15, 2009, shortly after takeoff from New York LaGuardia Airport, the Airbus A320-200 lost thrust in both engines due to bird strikes. The crew successfully ditched the aircraft in the icy Hudson River without loss of life to the 150 passengers and five crew members on board. Investigators cited numerous survivability factors, including the decision-making and cockpit resource management skills of Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles. NTSB also cited the cabin crew’s performance during evacuation as a factor.
These events spurred NTSB to “make the spirit of professionalism contagious throughout the industry,” according to NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman. In May 2010, the safety board invited industry experts to a three-day forum to explore ways of setting the highest standards of professionalism throughout industry in the board room, on the flight deck, in the tower, maintenance bays and the ramp. Suggestions included having corporate management provide guidance on expected standards of performance, set more stringent hiring standards and offer leadership and pilot mentoring courses.
Stakeholders have made improving professionalism a priority. But defining ‘professionalism’ is elusive.
NTSB, FAA and stakeholders have made improving professionalism a priority. But defining “professionalism” is elusive, noted Hersman. Indeed, one panelist noted the U.S. Air Force had 40 variations on what constitutes professionalism. But we all recognize “pro” behavior, whether by the teen server at the fast food counter or the captain of a jumbojet. A panel of FAA air traffic control training experts noted that an individual has a “sense of professionalism” when he/she works as a team player, considers safety on each radio transmission, identifies and seeks ways to mitigate threats.
Tony Kern, a leader in human factors and threat-and-error management and president of Convergent Performance, said the “3Ds” are critical Detail (perform every step correctly), Diligence (attention to detail every single time) and Discipline (to resist urge to deviate from norms, personal or external distractions).
Hersman stressed that current professionals are keeping air travel in the United States very safe. She noted there are 5,000 aircraft in flight over the United States at any moment, which means nearly 45,000 arrivals daily and millions of flights each year. Yet, less than five one-thousandths of 1 percent of those flights are involved in any type of accident.
Safety experts wants to keep it that way especially in an increasingly volatile market. Here airlines fail, or merge into megacarriers. Veteran pilots and controllers retire, taking a valuable experience with them. Low-time pilots are commanding flight decks of complex, highly automated aircraft. Here’s to training the future “pros” who will keep the skies safe.
Frances Fiorino, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, has more than 20 years’ experience as an aviation journalist with major publications. She holds a private pilot license and covers air safety and simulation/training issues in the transport and general aviation sectors.