More than three decades ago, a United Airlines jet crashed in Portland, Oregon, killing 10 people, because the co-pilot and flight engineer didn’t speak up.
The captain had ignored the flight engineer’s warnings that the plane didn’t have enough fuel to land safely. As the tanks ran dry, the junior crew members said nothing, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board found.
The events aboard a March 27 JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU:US) flight, on which the co-pilot locked an erratically behaving captain out of the cockpit and diverted the plane to a safe landing, show how much has changed in a culture once typified by autocratic captains browbeating underlings even in the face of potential hazards, safety specialists said. The co-pilot was identified yesterday as Jason Dowd of Salem, Ohio.
“Thirty years ago, I doubt you would have found a co-pilot who would have done this because of fear of going up against a captain and fear of getting fired,” John Nance, a former commercial pilot who now runs a Seattle-based safety consulting firm, said in an interview.
The United accident prompted a revolution in how pilots are trained, Frank Tullo, one of a group of airline safety officers who devised new methods starting in the late 1970s designed to give all crew members responsibility for safety, said in an interview.
Co-pilots were taught to speak up if they had concerns. Captains, many of whom had come from the military where officers were always considered to be right, were instructed to listen and encourage others to voice concerns.
Crew Resource Management
The training, known as crew resource management, is now required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, according to an advisory circular on the agency’s website, and has progressed from classroom discussion in its early years to full- blown exercises in flight simulators.
In 2004, the agency expanded the requirement to include pilots at so-called fractional jet operations such as NetJets Inc., which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Tullo said the JetBlue crew’s actions were a textbook example of that training being used in an unusual emergency that probably hadn’t been rehearsed.
Examples included the flight attendants seeking help early in the disturbance from passengers if things got worse, and the off-duty captain responding to crew requests for assistance, Tullo said.
JetBlue Captain Clayton Osbon, charged March 28 with interfering with a flight crew, was tackled by passengers as he pounded on the cockpit door after leaving and then demanding to be let back in, according to an FBI affidavit. Osbon remains at Northwest Texas Healthcare System hospital in Amarillo, Texas, said Caytie Martin, a spokeswoman. She declined to comment on his condition.
The NTSB, the U.S. agency that investigates aviation accidents, downloaded the jet’s cockpit voice recorder today and turned it over to the FBI, Kelly Nantel, a board spokeswoman, said. Agency investigators are also extracting data from a second recorder that tracks the flight path and expect to hand that over next week, Nantel said.
The co-pilot became concerned about Osbon’s behavior shortly after the flight to Las Vegas left New York, according to the court filing. Dowd was identified as the co-pilot by a government official who wasn’t authorized to release the information.
By the Book
The captain had yelled over the radio at air-traffic controllers and rambled about religion, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The co-pilot “became really worried” when Osbon said “we need to take a leap of faith” and “we’re not going to Vegas,” the FBI said in the affidavit.
The co-pilot at that point suggested to Osbon that they invite the off-duty captain to join them, according to the affidavit. Osbon reacted by leaving the cockpit.
With Osbon walking the aisle and ranting, the crew initiated several actions critical to ensuring their safety, Tullo said.
The co-pilot told a flight attendant to bring the off-duty captain into the cockpit, according to the FBI. “The flight attendants had already notified certain passengers they may need their help,” the FBI said in its affidavit.
When Osbon began banging on the locked cockpit door to get back in, the co-pilot made an announcement over the Airbus A320’s public address system asking passengers to restrain Osbon, according to the FBI. The pilots in the cockpit also locked the bullet-proof door to prevent Osbon from using a code to reenter, according to the FBI.
“This is a home run,” said Tullo, former vice president of flight operations at Continental Airlines, now part of United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US) “We have really empowered the entire crew to be responsible for the safe conduct of the flight.”
The case files of the world’s aviation accident investigators include many instances in which such quick action, coordination and communication didn’t occur, with deadly results.
A runway collision in 1977 between two Boeing Co. 747s in Tenerife, Canary Islands -- the deadliest accident in history with 583 fatalities -- occurred in spite of a warning from a flight engineer on one of the jets, according to AviationSafetyNetwork, which is partially funded by the Alexandria, Virginia-base Flight Safety Foundation.
‘Run Us Low’
The captain of a KLM jet continued to accelerate for takeoff even after the engineer cautioned that there might be another jet on the runway, according to the group’s website.
In the Dec. 28, 1978, United crash, warning lights indicated a landing-gear problem as the jet approached Portland, according to the NTSB.
The flight engineer noticed that there wasn’t enough fuel to stay in a holding pattern assessing the issue. “Fifteen minutes is gonna really run us low on fuel here,” he said, according to the NTSB transcript of the cockpit voice recorder.
The engineer didn’t raise his concerns again, even after 15 minutes had passed, according to the transcript.
“His thinking process must have been, ‘He’s the captain. He must know what he’s doing,’ ” Tullo said. “He ended up dying for that.”
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