The Significance of Cockpit Resource Management by James R. Coggins

Modern passenger airplanes are extremely safe, with overlapping safeguards (including having a pilot and co-pilot). An airplane rarely crashes due to a single problem. Usually, in an airplane crash, one or more mechanical issues are compounded by one or more pilot errors.

“Cockpit resource management” is a training process that was developed after it was discovered that planes were crashing due to flight crews’ failure to properly respond to crises. One of the prime issues was the previous command structure in which the pilot had absolute authority to fly the plane and make decisions. Less experienced co-pilots were reluctant to challenge this authority or even make strong recommendations. When the pilot made a mistake, when the pilot misunderstood a situation, when a pilot failed to see and understand a problem, when a pilot became distracted or too narrowly focused, there was no way to correct the mistake or save the plane.

For example, one crew of three was so focused on a burnt-out landing gear light that none of them noticed that the autopilot had been turned off and the plane was descending into a swamp.

Another crew was so focused on another landing gear problem that the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a neighborhood.

Another highly regarded pilot thought he was still heading toward the airport when he had already passed it. The much younger and less experienced co-pilot timidly suggested the truth. The pilot ignored him and flew the plane into the side of a mountain.

Another pilot insisted that the plane was lined up with the runway and ignored the co-pilot’s warning that they were badly off-course. They crashed.

Another pilot trusted his own faulty speed gauge while ignoring the co-pilot’s accurate gauge and put his plane into a fatal stall.

Cockpit Resource Management is intended to foster a less-authoritarian cockpit culture in which co-pilots are encouraged to question captains (pilots) if they have observed them making mistakes and to even take control of a plane in extreme cases. It encourages respect, teamwork, and cooperation. One key element is communication, both speaking up and listening, making clear objections, and giving clear orders. Another is delegating and dividing responsibilities. For instance, in the first example, disaster could have been averted if one pilot had focused on fixing the light (responding to the crisis) while the other flew the plane. This requires trust, and not just the others trusting the pilot to fly the plane. It also requires the pilot to trust subordinates enough to listen, really listen, to their concerns, and also to trust them to carry out delegated tasks without supervision, thus freeing the pilot to focus on his/her own tasks.

If Cockpit Resource Management is so crucial for air travel, could it also provide useful guidance in other fields?

Could prime ministers, presidents, and other political leaders benefit from learning to listen more to their subordinates (and even constituents)? Would it be better if they were able to delegate tasks more effectively rather than micromanaging? Are their subordinates able and willing to challenge leaders when they are wrong, instead of blindly supporting them and going down in flames along with them?

And what about the church? How many churches and ministry organizations have foundered because strong and autocratic leaders have been unwilling to listen to advice and warnings? Because such leaders have failed to trust their associates and followers? Because their followers have failed to warn them when they began to veer off-course?

Proverbs 11:14 (NIV) says, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers.” Proverbs 15:22 repeats, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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