From its inception in the 1980s until today, Crew Resource Management (CRM) has evolved into its latest stage, Threat and Error management. CRM is part of the pre-flight briefing, or if it is not it should be, talking about threats. And after the flight, if a pilot or a crew wants to learn about things that transpired during the flight, she/he should talk about any mishaps in an open discussion.
Were errors made, things missed? If so, then it certainly is helpful to talk about it to understand what and why it happened. Once the mistake has been made, it is irreversible. Now make it a useful learning moment. But, that is quite a task in many cultures, especially when it concerns the captain himself. There are many cultures where a remark from a crew member to the captain about a mishap will be perceived as an attack on the person. That is when the blinds are drawn, the arms crossed, and the body language transmits ‘I am warding off any criticism.’
Some years ago I flew a night approach into an African airport where we were constantly high above the glide path. I thought I could fix this, it would be close but I could make it. I toyed with the idea of making a 360 degree turn to give ourselves more space to lose altitude. I didn’t say it, do it, nor did the co-pilot offer any ideas. We were never stabilized, but I got the MD11 over the threshold at 50 feet in landing configuration. I was so angry with myself I could not bring myself to talk about it. Twenty-four hours later I summoned up the courage to talk to my co-pilot about this not so brilliant moment in the crew van to the airport. I apologized to him for the lousy performance and mentioned that I considered making a 360 degree turn and then continue. Yes, said he, I considered that too. I said, man, for Pete’s sake, why didn’t you say something? He said, yeah well, it looked like we would make it. I would have called for a go-around if not. Long story short, it was my first serious de-brief as a young and green captain. It was uncomfortable, which is why it took me 24 hours to get going about it. I had to stand there ‘naked’, not knowing what his response would be. It was humbling. And also a great learning moment. From then on, it became standard practice when something happened, and it became easier every time I did it.
As you gain experience you learn that we all make mistakes. The easy, or cheap way out is to ignore them because it is uncomfortable to talk about them. But, I tell you from experience, once you do acknowledge your mistakes and talk about them, everyone in the crew benefits, everyone learns something. It will also earn you a lot of respect, because you stand there, vulnerable, yet strong. Not chickening out, but facing the music. You may receive some blows. But it will make you wiser, more understanding of how we function and why we do what we do. And don’t worry, you are not in it alone. Today you stand there, tomorrow someone else will. If you don’t own up to your shortcomings but instead live in denial, you will never grow. Looking away from mishaps will stall your progress, it will not earn you respect. So start talking, you will feel better and become better. Best of all, it will work through into your relationships with your partner, your children, family and friends. It will be a rich experience for the rest of your life!
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