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Pilots And The Cockpit: What We Don't Understand


A scary incident, yesterday, on JetBlue Flight 191 when passengers saw a disturbed pilot locked out of the cockpit shouting about a bomb onboard and forcibly restrained by aircrew and passengers.


CLAYTON OSBOURNE: I'm so distraught. We've got Israel. We've got Iraq. We've got Israel. We've got Iraq. We're going to get doomed.

DAVID GONZALEZ: He kept pointing at me and said, you know, you need to pray. As soon as he pointed at me, I grabbed his arm, and I put him in a choke hold.

CONAN: That tape from NBC News. The plane landed safely. And the pilot, identified as a 20-year veteran, was taken to a hospital for medical observation. The airline suspended him earlier today. Pilots, aircrew, when do you start to ask questions about a crewmember's behavior, especially when it's the captain? Call and tell us what we don't know about what happens in the cockpit. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Cox is a retired pilot with 25 years experience with US Airways and now the CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an airline safety consulting firm. He writes the Ask the Captain column for USA Today. And joins us from a studio at the Poynter Institute in Saint Petersburg. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN COX: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And that's a remarkable situation where a co-pilot has to forcibly eject the pilot from the cockpit.

COX: It is. In 40 years of being around commercial aviation, I don't think I can remember another situation quite like this one.

CONAN: And it's not to suggest that they're in any way common or that in any way pilots are or aircrew or in any way more or less vulnerable to heart attacks or erratic behavior as anybody else. But it's not the situation where you're at 35,000 feet.

COX: Well, what we're really dealing with here is a pilot or crewmember incapacitation, and flight crews do deal with that from time to time. We have crewmembers around the world, the most common cause for crewmember incapacitation is food poisoning. But the difference here, of course, is that the - a food poisoned flight crewmember typically is not ambulatory and is not posing - is not acting inappropriately. But the same sorts of policies and procedures would apply for any sort of incapacitation event. And that's what he had yesterday.

CONAN: There is, though, a chain of command. The captain is the captain. He's in charge.

COX: He absolutely is in charge, until the point at which he or she can no longer function and becomes incapacitated. At that point, there is a very clear line of succession with the first officer then assuming the job of being pilot in command.

CONAN: And how does the co-pilot, being the first officer, start the questioning process to, say, Captain, I'm not sure you can go on?

COX: Well, I think first the - it's not so much the questioning as the seeing that there is unexpected, unacceptable behavior that could be a result of a variety of things. I mean, we've seen people have cardiac events. We've seen people that have had seizures on occasion. Those are inappropriate events. And once you start to realize that you may have a pending or unfolding incapacitation event, that's when the recognition of how to handle it occurs. And pilots are trained to deal with that, in cooperation with the flight attendants.

This is all under crew resource management and utilizing the entire flight crew as a team gives you a much greater out - likelihood of a successful outcome. And that's what happened on JetBlue yesterday.

CONAN: Well, clearly, the pilot, as he said, as we heard him say, was distraught and had crossed the line. But it builds up to that. There - we don't know what happened in the cockpit before that.

COX: That's just it. We don't know what happened. We do know that at some point everybody was satisfied with the - with each other when they departed, when they showed up for the trip, they got on the airplane. No one refused to fly. No one raised questions about the competency or the ability of any of the crewmembers to complete their fulfilled jobs. So as the day - as the flight unfolded, things changed. The incapacitation became more obvious, and the crew responded to it.

CONAN: You mentioned flight attendants. Some of the bigger jets, I guess there's still a flight engineer onboard, so there's a third person in the cockpit as well. But people lower down in the pecking order, is there a procedure by which they can raise questions?

COX: Absolutely. There are very few flight engineers left today. With the automation and modern jets, it's typically a captain, a first officer. On the longer flights there may be an additional first officer. In some cases, on the very ultra-long flights, two full crews. But there is a line of succession. And if - in today's world, utilizing this crew resource management, that is something that pilots and flight attendants oftentimes train together so that the ability to create this team to face an abnormality, whatever it may be, is enhanced, and this is - in the case of a crewmember incapacitation, that would be the policies and procedures that they would turn to.

CONAN: Do air crews fly together? I mean obviously the flight attendants are rotated around, I think, quite a bit, but would the first officer and the captain fly together a lot?

COX: Usually a captain and a first officer will fly together, but they may rotate in and out depending on schedule demands.

CONAN: So they get to know each other pretty well.

COX: Yes. You get to know somebody pretty quickly. It's a small area. It's got a wonderful view, but it's oftentimes described as a good size closet. So you work hours and hours with somebody that physically close to them, you get a pretty good sense of their personality quite quickly.

CONAN: We're talking with John Cox, a retired pilot who writes the Ask the Captain column for USA Today, CEO of Safety Operating Systems. We want to hear from pilots and aircrew today - what goes on inside the cockpit behind that locked door? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's start with Matt. Matt with us from Tucson.

MATT: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MATT: Well, one of the things I wanted to bring up, and I'm sure John can speak to this, is that, you know, most of the major airlines have a program in place called professional standards whereby crewmembers can bring in individuals, they're generally volunteers, but they're trained regarding how to deal with these kind of things before it gets to this disastrous point, hopefully. So if a crewmember has a question about another crewmember's capability or their behavior, or how they're operating the aircraft, et cetera, they can go to professional standards and say, hey, I have this concern. It needs to be addressed. Let's do that.

CONAN: That's presumably while the plane is still on the ground.

MATT: Yeah, yes. Absolutely. This committee is usually run by the pilots' union with management approval, and it's a professional fraternal organization that pilots use to basically keep an eye on each other.

CONAN: Captain Cox?

COX: Professional standards is a very, very important part. Pilots hold each other to a very high level of professionalism. Professional standards comes in if there's a recurring problem with the way someone is handling an airplane or is being overly authoritarian or a variety of things where the ability to function cohesively as a crew in compliance with the standard operating procedures - those are the kinds of things that get brought up to professional standards typically. We don't know, in this case, if there was any indication before yesterday that this captain had any issues or not, and I'll be very hesitant until we learn a little bit more about the previous events, if any, that - whether professional standards would have been involved or not.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matt.

MATT: You bet.

CONAN: Email from Pat in Gaston, Oregon: I was a Navy pilot and an airline pilot for 35 years. Generally, what goes on behind the door is boring and routine. Checklists are run, procedures are followed. For the most part, everything happens in an ordinary way. A lot of pilot's training is learning how to deal with the routine and remain alert and vigilant rather than becoming complacent. When a problem occurs, all those hours of training kick in. Often a checklist is run and procedures are followed and the problem is fixed almost before you realize you've done it. It's the weird problems like the JetBlue incident that really can't be neatly boxed and fixed. That's where experience and common sense make a difference, and as the saying goes, that's why they get paid the big bucks.

COX: I think I would agree with those sentiments. The training is very rigid. The training is extensive. It's ongoing. Procedure (unintelligible) a lot of things that may happen with an abnormality, an engine that doesn't work well, a pressurization problem. All of those things are proceduralized. But in addition, you also have to be able to deal with the unexpected abnormality, and that's where the crew resource management comes in, that's where this type of training, this teamwork training comes in. There are times when you do have to be creative. It is very rare, but that's - and it is all part of the overall training that airline crews, professional pilot crews, go through.

CONAN: I was just going to ask. I mean obviously pilots and first officers train on simulators. Are there simulated problems thrown at them that get them a chance to exercise that creativity and think their way through?

COX: Absolutely. One of the somewhat well-known ones is either a captain or a first officer in the midst of a simulated, very low visibility approach - the weather is bad, the wind's blowing, it's turbulent - will just cease to function, and the flying pilot is then required to recognize that you have an incapacitation event, ensure that the pilot that is acting incapacitated can't create a problem for the airplane, and successfully either conclude - complete the landing or make the missed approach, swing back around and set the approach up again. But there are trainings for incapacitated crewmembers.

CONAN: And I know that on naval vessels there is a formal procedure by which the first officer relieves the captain of command in such situations when that's necessary - again, those rare moments. Is there a formal procedure for a first officer to relieve the captain on an airliner?

COX: I don't know that I have ever seen it written as you described for a naval situation, but there is a case - there are cases where if any crewmember has significant doubt about the ability of another crewmember to function in their capacity, you bring it up to them. And if you may end up having to overrule it and say, OK, the crew believes that you're not capable of continuing, so you're not going to be in that position any longer. Be it -whether it's a flight attendant, whether it's a first officer, whether it's a captain, all of that all comes in together. So it's all crew incapacitation and utilizing the team to effectively ensure the safety of the flight.

CONAN: Captain John Cox, a retired pilot, also writes the Ask the Captain column for USA Today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to - this is Steve. Steve with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

STEVE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Steve. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

STEVE: Good. I wish he's going to mention for historical context, FedEx flight 705, April 7, 1994, there was a crewmember, a (unintelligible) crewmember who attacked the three operating crewmembers. They were David Sanders, the captain, James Tucker, the first officer, Andrew Peterson, the flight engineer. This is on a FedEx DC-10, and they had to fight for their lives for control of that airplane. Auburn Calloway wanted to commit suicide by flying this airplane into the FedEx Memphis worldwide hub, and that was about as bad as it gets. He attacked him with the ball-peen hammer in the cockpit, a fight ensued. Fortunately, they were able to regain control of the cockpit.

CONAN: Wow. Captain Cox, do you remember that?

COX: Oh, yeah. I remember the situation very well. Mr. Calloway was, I think, had faced disciplinary issues with the airline previously, and I'm not even sure how much longer he would have been employed with them. But, you know, that was a very tragic event for a whole variety of things. That flight crew, that FedEx flight crew, did a remarkable job in defending themselves and keeping the airplane safe until they could subdue Mr. Calloway and then complete the landing.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the reminder. Appreciate it.

STEVE: All right.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Tim, and Tim with us from Park City, Utah.

TIM: Hi there. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

TIM: I'm a pilot for a regional airline, and I think that the biggest part of the story is how that first officer both recognized that the captain was freaking out and then had a plan to get him out of the cockpit without having a catastrophic fight a la that FedEx situation in the cockpit.

CONAN: We don't know what happened in that cockpit. Would it have been recorded? Obviously there's a sound recorder. Would it have it picked that up?

TIM: Yeah, definitely. There's - the intercom's recorded, and there's also an area microphone that picks up, you know, the noise in the general area of the cabin. I just was thinking about, you know, if he had totally freaked out up there and there's a lot of buttons you can push. And if the guy is trying to fight you while you try to push him back and rectify a situation, I don't know if you expect a situation where you could really successfully have a good successful outcome there.

CONAN: Captain Cox.

COX: I think this first officer certainly needs to be commended. They - he handled it in a way that minimized the force or minimized the likelihood of there being a situation while this - the captain was acting in a way that was not consistent with safe flight. So he was able to use quick thinking and then building the team with the flight attendants once he was able to get the captain out of the flight deck, then was able to ensure that he wouldn't get back in. So this was an individual who thought well under pressure, and that's one of the thing pilots are taught to do from the very first basic flight training, is you have to be able to think under pressure, and this first officer did a very good job of it by persuading the captain that he didn't - he needed to go to the lavatory. He needed to get out of the flight deck, and then taking very significant and direct moves to ensure that the captain was not going to get back in. So I commend him for it.

CONAN: And had to be the most unusual announcement he will ever make over a plane's PA system though.

COX: I think so. I think that it's clearly one that everyone will remember, but I think that this first officer, he really does deserve a commendation for his actions. It was a good job.

CONAN: The rest of the aircrew as well, and certainly the passengers who came to their aid as well in restraining the captain, and we certainly wish him the best of luck and hope he recovers. Tim, doesn't it cause you to - would it cause you to take another look at the person across from you in the cockpit?

TIM: You know, I'm going to work here in a few minutes, and I'm trying to think of a funny joke to tell the captain (unintelligible) on me.


TIM: But we really do do a lot of self-checking, and the pilot incapacitation like Captain Cox was talking about is something we think about, and there's a continual evaluation. You know, my company has the - it's the three-comment rule or some people have the two-comment rule. If they don't respond to you immediately after, you know, hey, hey, hey, the third time, that's it. You know, you're out (unintelligible) flight. And the book does say keep the pilot away from the controls, but I never thought it would be - I always thought it would be someone slumped over, not someone actively being combative in the cockpit.

CONAN: Have a safe flight, Tim.

TIM: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Thanks for the call. And Captain Cox, thank you for your time.

COX: My pleasure, Neal. Good to talk to you again.

CONAN: John Cox, CEO of Safety Operating Systems and author of the Ask the Captain column for USA Today. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.