The mysteries that are hidden behind the cockpit door of a commercial airliner or corporate jet are rarely contemplated by most travelers. After boarding, we conduct business, are excited to be on vacation or are concerned about whether they are on-time. We make our last call, send an e-mail or text, and settle down to either a nap or an anxious takeoff. We know little about the engineering magic that makes a 400 plus ton machine on a tricycle gear lift itself towards the sky. We think very little about the two strangers sitting in the cockpit wearing crisp company uniforms with striped epaulets on their shoulders. We don't know where they learned to fly, whether they were at the top or bottom of their class, what problems they suffer in their lives, or other factors that may affect their competency during your flight.
Yet, we routinely allow them to take us hurtling down the runway at 150 miles per hour or so, then 5 to 7 miles above Earth into the stratosphere, a remarkably hostile environment often with hurricane force winds and Arctic winter temperatures, flying at speeds of 500 miles per hour or more. A place where the air is so thin most of us would be rendered unconscious in a very short period of time. When given a moment's thought, it is a remarkable leap of faith routinely taken by millions of travelers worldwide.
What should we think about the recent published events about flight attendants opening the cabin door of an airliner while taxiing, deploying the emergency chute and escaping with two beers, one in each hand? Or how about the flight attendant who may have suffered a breakdown during flight screaming about bombs and crashing?
Most recently, a captain of a popular and well-known airline, reportedly with an impeccable reputation, disrupted a flight with shouts and screams about bombs and al-Qaeda. Is there a history of these incidents? Sadly, yes. A popular mail and air freight company aircrew suffered a devastating in-flight bludgeoning by a distraught fellow pilot who had unknowingly stowed away in the large jet aircraft. Despite these incidents, in-flight disruptions by flight crews and flight attendants are rare.
As with any profession, becoming a pilot, particularly for the airlines, requires years of study. The process to obtain a Commercial or Airline Transport Pilot's license demands practice, apprenticing, a high level of piloting competency and regular testing for flight safety. There are numerous license ratings which require more training and testing. For example, a pilot must undergo additional training, be tested, and receive a license rating for each different type of jet they fly. In many airlines, when a captain of a smaller jet moves to a larger jet, they must again fly as a first officer to gain experience in the model. Flight safety is based on a myriad of factors including pilot training, competency and proficiency, medical exams (every six months), air traffic control, aircraft engineering and maintenance. Each country has a government agency that oversees flying safety and enacts and enforces regulations. Professional pilots are one of the most carefully scrutinized and regulated professions in the world.
Nonetheless, crew incidents do occur. Why, what are the mysteries behind the cockpit door and how does it affect flight safety? A professional flight crew is a highly disciplined unit, working under a command structure. There is a captain, first officer (copilot) and in some aircraft a flight engineer (second officer). Each has designated responsibilities which are regimented into a routine designed to enhance safety. The captain is by tradition and by law the final authority within an aircraft. In earlier days of commercial flying the philosophy many captains had was that the copilot was there to put the gear up, flaps up, and was then to shut up.
Modern airline flying is anything but autocratic. A philosophy and training regimen known as cockpit crew resource management has emerged as a leading safety practice between ranking captains and their flight crews. Teamwork is emphasized in modern cockpits. Copilots are trained and encouraged to question a captain's planning or in-flight decision should they feel it is adverse to a safe flight. Although the final decision rests with the captain, cockpit crew resource management has led to much safer flying. Flight crews are supposed correct each other's cockpit errors before they can lead into a deadly chain of events leading to an accident, regardless of rank. It is considered inadvisable to pair a captain who is new to a make and model jet, with a co-pilot equally new and it is rarely done. The Colgan flight which crashed during approach to Buffalo because of the crew’s failure to recognize deadly diminishing airspeed secondary to accumulating airframe icing suffered such a fate. This is not a frequent occurrence in the airline business.
Airliners are now automated and can fly themselves, navigate themselves and land themselves in visibility so low, the passengers first inkling they are close to the runway is the bump of the landing. In the case of the French Air Bus models automated systems sometimes override a pilot’s direct flying inputs. Debates are flying both ways regarding whether a machine overriding a pilot causes or prevents more accidents. Automation may have unintended negative consequences. Basic pilot flying skills can be eroded if not used regularly. We now see more of an emphasis to return to the training regimen’s which emphasized developing and maintaining basic stick & rudder skills in addition to ‘procedural’ flying methods.
Despite the recent startling events in a few airliners, flying remains one of the safest ways to travel in history. Continuous progress has been made towards the goal of minimizing accidents to the lowest possible number by impeccably high piloting standards, remarkable engineering and government accident study and oversight. What is happening behind the cockpit door? Well, take your nap, text your family, and let them know you’ll be home in a few hours….you are being cared for by a team of truly remarkable proficient men and woman.