© Tim Möller-Kaya

Cockpit on the ground

  • TEXT DIRK KUNDE
  • ILLUSTRATION TIM MÖLLER-KAYA

Flight simulators are an ­important tool for training pilots to make the right decision fast. Managers and medical profes­sionals can also learn this important skill in a simulated cockpit. Our reporter attended a seminar

“An oven in the forward galley has caught fire,” the chief steward reports via the internal communication system. In the cockpit, I feel a rush of adrenaline. I’ve already forgotten that this is just a simulation. Now is the time for me, the pilot, to act. The first thing I do is report the incident by radio to Air Traffic Control on the ground. There isn’t much smoke, but some of the passengers are anxious. I’ve just taken off from Frankfurt in a Boeing 747-8, the aircraft is full and we’ve only been in the air for a few minutes. If the cabin crew manage to put the fire out by hand I can continue on my way. If not, I will need to land the plane as soon as possible. My copilot and I have to make a decision fast, and we don’t have time to wait for the fire to go out. With both the crew and ground control waiting for instructions, we quickly review the weather report and our landing options. The passengers are also waiting to be reassured. Here in the cockpit, a flashing light and a loud signal remind me of the fire, adding to what is already a very stressful situation.

You have to analyze the mechanisms of failure

Robert Schröder, seminar leader

Company managers and surgeons experience similar kinds of stress every day, where a wrong decision can be fatal and is often avoidable. “We call what we offer ‘10 000-meter know-how,’” says Walter Drasl, a former pilot and today head of Pro Toura, a company that works closely with Lufthansa Flight Training (LFT) to offer a seminar called “Decide.” It’s a two-day course  given by experienced pilots on which participants are confronted with complex situations and learn how to make the right decision. I’m here today, just a stone’s throw from Frankfurt Airport, with some management consultants, IT experts and a controller from LFT. Through the glass walls of our seminar room, we can see the flight simulators moving back and forth on their long, hydraulic, stilt-like legs. But seminar leader Robert Schröder isn’t allowing us down there quite yet.

The flight captain tells us about a culture change in aviation that was introduced in the late seventies. Before that, crucial decisions were always made unilaterally by those in command. “The new approach harks back to a single date in history, March 27, 1977,” says Schröder, who investigates accidents for Lufthansa when he’s not flying or teaching seminars. That was the day two jumbo jets collided in the fog on the runway at Los Rodeos airport on ­Tenerife. Unclear communication with the tower and rigid hierarchies in the cockpit were later considered to be the main cause. “Flight captains were considered demigods whom nobody dared to contradict,” Schröder explains. That’s when CRM – crew resource management – entered the cockpit.

© Tim Möller-Kaya

 Put simply, this means making decisions by pooling the know-how and talents of every member of the team. Clear communication rules and flat hierarchies have altered the form of briefings and debriefings, as well as the interaction in the cockpit between captain and copilot. Everyone is encouraged to speak their mind, even if they just have a vague feeling that something is wrong. “Nobody need be afraid of disciplinary measures afterwards,” the seminar leader says.

Before becoming a pilot, Schröder spent a couple of semesters studying medicine. Today, doctors also count among his students. Check lists, briefings and debriefings are all part of operating-room procedure today. “The team takes a time-out before every surgery,” says Dr. Lorenz Rieger, chief physician at Lands­hut-Achdorf hospital, describing the routine there, “we make sure we have the right patient, that the right body part is marked, and that we have all the necessary instruments lined up.” The team also counts the instruments to make sure the same number is there in the debriefing afterwards.

Most companies don’t have procedures like this, nor do they usually have emergency plans in place. They tend to wait for problems to arise, solve them on the spot, and rarely work through past mistakes. “Instead of analyzing the mechanisms of failure, they often try to solve the problem by looking for someone to blame and punish,” says Schröder. When a company goes bankrupt, it usually blames its competitors or its suppliers, the overall market situation or its creditors – not anybody at the company itself.

© Tim Möller-Kaya

 Flight captains cannot shift responsibility like this. That’s why Lufthansa pilots practice dealing with difficult situations in a flight simulator up to four times a year. “Knowing what procedures to follow in a tricky situation has to become second nature,” explains Schröder. And he clarifies that he doesn’t mean chitchat when he talks about flat hierarchies. “It’s not about everyone in the cockpit offering their two cents in a critical situation and then voting on what to do. It’s about reaching a decision in a clear and structured way.” This procedure can be condensed into the English acronym FOR-DEC. “F” stands for facts, which in my case is the burning oven in the galley. My options (O) are to continue to fly or land the plane. Then my copilot and I have to assess the risks (R). The fuel tanks are nearly full and the aircraft is correspondingly heavy, so I would need a long runway on which to land, preferably with an instrument landing system. The weather is also a factor.

Our decision (D) is to land the plane in Munich. I inform the chief steward, who in turn tells the crew to prepare for landing. Then I make an announcement to the passengers, during which time my copilot informs Air Traffic Control of our decision and changes our course for the approach in Munich. As soon as everyone knows what to do and has received all the necessary instructions (E – execution), things in the cockpit quiet down. We’ve set the autopilot, and I’ve turned off the warning signal. We make use of the time to double-check (C) our decision. If in the meantime the fire has been extinguished, or alternatively, has spread, we would have to think again and make a different decision, but the fire is still smoldering. So we prepare for our descent. A short time later, the Boeing gently touches down on Runway 26 L in Munich, but before it comes to a full stop, seminar leader Schröder turns off the projector. I suddenly realize that none of this is real and that I’ve been in a simulator the whole time. But I still feel the after-affects of my adrenaline rush, and I’m glad that my copilot and I were able to make the right decision. The fire is out.