Sterile Cockpit Rule

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August 15, 2013

One might suppose that the Sterile Cockpit Rule might have something to with the physical cleanliness of an aircraft cockpit, but such is not the case. It's about keeping conversation and activities in the cockpit professional and related only to the job at hand during "critical phases of flight." These FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules apply to airline flight operations and describe critical phases of flight as including taxiing, takeoff, landing and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet, except cruise flight.

cockpitThese rules prohibit any activities that could distract or interfere with a flight crew member in the performance of his or her duties during the critical phase, such as:

  • airline company calls not related to safety of flight
  • announcements made to passengers promoting the airline
  • announcements made to passengers pointing out sights of interest
  • filling out airline company payroll records
  • eating meals
  • non-essential communications between cabin and cockpit crew
  • reading publications not related to the proper conduct of flight

These rules went into effect in 1981 after a study revealed that distractions in the cockpit had been the cause or contributing cause of airline accidents, some fatal. The necessity and value of these rules are easily understood by anyone familiar with automobile accidents caused by texting while driving.

Crew Resource Management

Related to the Sterile Cockpit Rule is something called, Crew Resource Management or CRM. Originally called Cockpit Resource Management, the program began in 1979 at a NASA workshop. The workshop was held out of concern for the human error aspect of airline crashes. Out of this NASA conference came a training system designed to improve the ways that flight crews worked with each other and with air traffic control people on the ground.

The pilot of an airplane has ultimate responsibility for the airplane, and is tasked with the final decisions of what to do. Prior to CRM, a pilot in command might be reluctant to listen to the copilot in a crisis situation, but instead would just give orders. The copilot, in deference to the authority figure represented by the Captain, might be reluctant to point out something important that needs attention. This has led to situations where the pilot failed to have, and act upon, all the information needed for safe flight, resulting in catastrophe.

CRM trains pilots and flight crews in ways to overcome this. Pilots are trained to be more receptive to crew input, and crews are trained in how to communicate crucial information to the pilot in command of the aircraft in respectful, effective ways.

This training has evolved over the years. Some airlines are now using CRM training to address automated systems in the cockpit. And the training has expanded to the flight crew outside the cockpit, maintenance personnel and others. Communication, leadership, and optimum decision making are stressed. The successes of Crew Resource Management programs have led to its adoption by military aviation, fire departments, and crews on the bridges of ships.

CRM has not been without its problems. It can be difficult to implement in countries which stress the absolute authority of those in leadership positions or in the military, for example. While CRM will not eliminate all error in the cockpit, its value in making flying safer is well understood.

With all the concern about improving cockpit safety and decision making as a result of the Asiana Airlines Flight OZ214 crash, one must ask, what has been done to address the cockpit environment during instruction, orientation, and testing of airline pilots? And what about the training of check pilots?

A recent commentary by a former simulator instructor working for Alteon (a Boeing subsidiary) at Asiana, indicates that Asiana trains its check pilots to simply monitor and make a record of mistakes, and not to take action should a dangerous error be made and not corrected. The check airman on Asiana flight OZ214 was apparently silent as a Sphinx even in the face of danger - perhaps because he saw his job as merely to report, not correct, mistakes/errors in airmanship. Of course, this scenario gives the check airman the benefit of the doubt and assumes that he was doing his job and did, in fact, recognize the speed and approach slope problems before they became uncorrectable. On the other hand, if he did not notice the serious degradation of the safety of the flight, one wonders just what he was doing.

Ultimately, every member of the flight crew is responsible to ensure that the passengers on the plane make it safely to their destinations. Maintaining a sterile cockpit and implementation of effective CRM rules will help to ensure that this happens.

Former airline captain, Dr. Robert Besco, a preeminent expert in crew resource management, deserves much recognition for his work in the field of industrial psychology as his work has led to the advocacy of a three step approach to CRM, which might be summarized as follows:

1) The pilot not actually flying the aircraft must quietly, calmly, and politely call to the attention of the pilot actually flying the aircraft anything that is perceived to be a dangerous condition related to airspeed, altitude, or configuration, for instance.

2) If the pilot actually flying the aircraft does not respond to the call and fails to correct the condition and the error continues, the pilot not actually flying bluntly repeats the warning.

3) If no response is received, or if there is a refusal to acknowledge and correct the condition, the pilot not actually flying then acquires the authority to say, and says, "It's my airplane," takes over actual control of the aircraft and makes the appropriate corrections.

At that point, rank becomes meaningless. Flight safety trumps rank. At some point - a reasonably safe point in time and space - it is necessary that aggressive action be taken to ensure that tragedy does not ensue simply because a crew member either stubbornly or due to some mental fixation or stress, refuses to take immediate and necessary corrective action.

By Ronald L. M. Goldman Google+