Whether you love flying or hate it, you must admit the stories which emanate from the aviation industry often make for fascinating reading. From the ever-shrinking fortunes of domestic aircraft production to the Miracle on the Hudson, there’s always something intriguing in the news.
The big story over the past week has, of course, been the drama aboard JetBlue flight 191 while enroute from New York to Las Vegas. The captain, Clayton Osbon, apparently experienced some sort of mental breakdown during the flight and had to be physically restrained by passengers after unusual behavior and disturbing comments were made to fellow members of the flight crew. It has provided welcome fodder for some publications on what was an otherwise slow news week. Esquire went so far as to re-publish a 2007 piece in which the author claims that “all flights numbered 191 have gone down in flames”. (I hate to break it to them, but JetBlue’s flight 191 was — and is — a daily occurrence.)
The more I think about Flight 191, the more it seems that the interesting story here is that of the first officer, Jason Dowd. The captain going berserk? That’s pretty straightforward. Whether it was stress, mental illness, a bad drug interaction, or a combination of factors, pilots are still human and despite all attempts to “certify” them as 100% airworthy, circumstances can cause an aberration to slip through the cracks. The happy outcome in this case was due largely to key decisions made by the co-pilot. That’s where the story really gets interesting, because hindsight not withstanding, Mr. Dowd’s decision to lock out the captain and take over the aircraft must have been a difficult one.
For one thing, captains always command a certain respect even if they are personally disliked. They are typically more experienced (in type, at least) than their counterparts in the right seat. In Mr. Osbon’s case, he was not only a long-time captain for JetBlue but a highly-respected pilot by company managmenet as well. JetBlue had designated him as a “check airman” — a senior captain whose judgement and decision-making ability was sufficient to conduct flight tests and IOEs on other company pilots. In other words, in JetBlue’s estimation, Osbon was the least likely person to cause a problem.
Then there’s tradition. Since the earliest days of multi-pilot flying, the captain (or, in legal parlance, the Pilot-In-Command) has been legally responsible for and the ultimate legal authority aboard his or her aircraft. Other crew members have their jobs and certainly provide input, but at the end of the day it’s the captain’s ship. If two pilots have a legitimate difference of opinion, the PIC has the greater authority in the eyes of the company, the law, and the FAA. First officers know that, so outright sedition on the flight deck is extremely rare.
If anything, history has shown that the SIC (second-in-command) often doesn’t speak up when he should. NTSB archives are replete with stories of captains doing stupid things while the first officer remains mute. The worst accident in aviation history was a collision between two 747s caused, in part, by a captain’s impatience. The co-pilot felt something was wrong, but spoke too timidly to stop the impending crash which killed 583 people.
Co-pilots avoid direct confrontation with captains for other reasons as well. The first officer wants to become a captain someday, and a reputation of being combative and nitpicky is not necessarily conducive to that end, especially when paired with a senior pilot like Mr. Osbon. Obviously every first officer wants to strike the right balance between door mat and procedural Nazi, but that’s easier said than done. It’s not always clear how one is being perceived by the other guy. Interpersonal relationships on the flight deck are a world of greys, not black-and-white.
Besides, everywhere I’ve been privileged to fly as a captain, the company’s philosophy was that first officers were to be mentored by the PIC. That makes the captain a teacher, an educator worthy of high standing and not someone to be crossed without sufficient reason.
So okay, the first officer decides that despite the captain’s vaunted history and high position within the company, he’s no longer fit to act as Pilot-In-Command and must be replaced. Once you start down that road, you’re committed. And if the company or FAA later finds fault with your decision, you become the crazy one, the mutineer, the criminal. Even if Dowd was right, what if his decision was not backed up by popular opinion? The entire compliment of passengers and crew are on the other side of the door and not necessarily privy to the captain’s eccentricities. What if the passengers didn’t see the crazy side of Captain Osbon and instead declared Dowd the one who needed removal?
Even if Dowd was completely sure of himself and the necessity of his actions — as it sounds like he was — it could not have been an easy thing to leave behind the mantra of crew resource management and strike out on his own. For one thing, how do you go about it? The captain is sitting three feet from you. What if he hadn’t left the flight deck to use the lavatory? Do you physically remove him without any assistance? And if not, how do you get help? The cabin interphone is there in the cockpit, but so is the captain. I wonder if the first officer had a “Plan B” for that eventuality. Maybe step out of the cockpit himself for a moment and rally the flight attendants for help. Even that has risks, of course. Would it be wise to leave the cockpit even for a moment when the captain was in such a state? Meanwhile time is ticking by and Las Vegas gets 8 miles closer with every passing minute.
As I said, the co-pilot’s journey seems to be the interesting one here, especially since he made the right call and there’s much to be learned from the procedures and techniques he utilized for keeping the aircraft safe. As crazy as Captain Osbon may have been — and I think we’ve all seen the passenger video clips by now — his irrationality was fully offset by Jason Dowd’s level-headed and clear thinking application of outside-the-box CRM.
You might think that this scenario is covered by pilot training, but it ain’t necessarily so. I’ve never had the topic of a crew member going nuts broached in training, interviews, or even casual conversation with fellow aviators. Why would we? It’s so rare as to be virtually unheard of. Some airline interviews do include questions about disagreements the applicant may have experienced in the past with co-workers. Likewise, it’s common to be asked about hypothetical scenarios in which one is flying with a captain who exceeds a MDA or other limitation. But nothing on the scope of Flight 191’s events.
Human factors are far more complex than any aircraft system. Once again we see that not every contingency is covered by company manuals and procedures. At the end of the day, a considered and thoughtful aviator is still required in that seat to effect a positive outcome when the flight doesn’t go as planned.