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We don’t know a pilot who lacks a tale of how the pressure to get somewhere almost led to a disaster. Or- similarly- they talk of how feeling the pressure to fulfill a mission led to a flight that ended well- fortunately – but not before they experienced a scare that changed their attitude toward flying in conflict with their better judgement. The syndrome goes by a variety of names: ‘Get-Home-itis’; ‘Homesick Angel ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st May 2006
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Performance Pressures:
A prelude to problems- if not recognized

We don’t know a pilot who lacks a tale of how the pressure to get somewhere almost led to a disaster. Or- similarly- they talk of how feeling the pressure to fulfill a mission led to a flight that ended well- fortunately – but not before they experienced a scare that changed their attitude toward flying in conflict with their better judgement.

The syndrome goes by a variety of names: ‘Get-Home-itis’; ‘Homesick Angel syndrome’. For the sake of this feature though- let’s call it what it is: Performance Pressure.

Performance Pressure is bad enough when it’s simply self-imposed pressure to stay on plan- to meet a timetable so the pilot can meet the family at a promised time (many a pilot finds it hardest to disappoint the family so eager to see them back home)- but throw in a professional status- a paycheck for piloting- and a highly capable business aircraft equipped for operating in some of nature’s worst conditions- and the pressure from above can become irresistible.

No soldier wants to be the one to disappoint the commander; no corporate captain looks forward to the boss asking- 'Why can’t we go? Other pilots have flown me in conditions no worse than these.'

And succumbing to such pressure – when every instinct urges you to 'just say no' – can be the first step toward a pilot’s last flight as PIC- if not the pilot’s last flight… period – along with his charges.

Recognizing and coping with such operational pressures occupied part of the agenda at last year’s Bombardier Safety Standdown 2005- 'The War on Error.' This month we’ll examine a couple of the events that illustrate why pilots should resist pressure to fly in defiance of their better judgement.

Airlines’ Domino Schedules
Any person working in aviation has experienced the fragility of the airline industry’s hub-and-spoke system – you know- one of those too-frequent days when a disruption somewhere ripples through the system and impacts schedules.

Maybe it’s weather at a location totally separate from your itinerary – but exactly where that the crew needed to fly you is waiting- stuck on that delayed flight. Not only does that event make your flight late; it threatens the on-time performance of the outbound flight planned for the incoming plane- and several other flight connections downstream.

Taken to its worst extreme- dozens- scores- even hundreds of flights can be disrupted in one part of the country because of a disruption elsewhere. One typical example: weather at a hub airport- which impacts both incoming and outgoing flights to the point that a carrier’s entire national schedule can be wrecked for a day or more.

The flight crew’s pressure to stay on time actually dissipates to a great extent when that happens. If everything is off schedule- on-time performance is out the window – and everyone is off the hook- more or less.

But if the weather is only marginally disruptive at a spoke airport- the pressure to stay on time can be extreme on a crew which doesn’t want to be the one to throw off the schedule of several downstream flights. After all- once a flight is late- it’s often very difficult to make up that time on that flight; arriving late can make the next segment late- which can make the next segment later. That’s when the dominoes start to tumble.

Plenty of examples exist of tragic outcomes following flight crews’ pushing conditions in an effort to stay on time: the American Airlines runway overrun accident in Little Rock; a Southwest runway overrun accident in Burbank and another last year in Chicago.

In all three instances- weather slowed arrival rates to the airports; in all three- the crew opted to land rather than go around and make a flight late – or later. In two of three- the aircraft landed outside the configuration proscribed by the POH. In all three- the jets were unable to stop before running off the end of the runway.

Of course- business aviation operations don’t generally face such schedule pressures – no hub-and-spoke ripples are possible on Origin-and-Destination (O&D) flights. That doesn’t mean there isn’t pressure to stay on The Boss’ schedule. And that pressure can have the exact same impact on the safety of a flight.

Charter Ops Subject To Client Pressure
In the March- 2001 crash of a Gulfstream III on approach to Aspen- Colorado- the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board turned up evidence that the charter provider succumbed to the pressures of an irate client when instructing the crew to go into the Aspen airport after dark.

The resulting crash killed 18 – two cockpit crew- a flight attendant and 15 passengers- (the client among them) – and brought about an NTSB recommendation that FAR 135 charter operators be required to develop and use Cockpit Resource Management training.

While not disputing the value of such training- a better solution would have been for the charter company management to inform the client that delaying the flight’s departure put the flight at risk of having to divert to a different- less convenient airport. Why? Because of the rules involved and the safety issues at stake.

But- as we all know- bosses can be bosses – and bosses beholden to high-dollar clients may be reluctant to take a stand that might cost them tens of thousands of dollars. In this case- the loss of charter revenue would have been a cheap alternative to the loss of 18 lives and a multimillion-dollar jet. Sometimes- the best solution is to just say- 'No.'

Crew Responsibility – Pressure Created Distraction
In this same accident- the flight crew never did get on its game or on plan when attempting their approach into Aspen. Repeated mistakes – from selecting improper power and flap settings to misuse of flaps and spoilers – culminated with the crew hitting several crossing points below proscribed altitude minimums.

So at 1.5 miles out- when the airport should have been visible- the crew was below minimum approach altitude – and never saw the airport.

CRM might well have prompted the crew to abandon the approach well before they got into trouble. But it’s also conceivable that they might have proceeded even under CRM due to their awareness of how unhappy the client was going to be if they landed somewhere other than Aspen and caused the client to miss or be late for a dinner he was throwing that evening.

In other words- even with CRM- the pressure to perform could well have overwhelmed the crew’s sense of the situational issues and put them all in harm’s way. But once they accepted their boss' admonition that they had to deliver the client and his party to Aspen- all bets were off.

It’s a little like the inexplicable nature of pilots to tune out a system alarm – such as an altitude alert from a Terrain Avoidance and Warning System – because they’ve become focused on a specific task or outcome. An outcome like landing despite all indicators urging them to abandon their approach.

It’s Happened Before – And Will Again
Human nature being what it is- it’s more than a little logical to expect other accidents attributable to the crew’s failure to resist outside pressures to do what they know better than to try.

For crewmembers- setting and adhering to personal checklist minimums can provide a starting point for countering the boss’ pressure to perform. If a crew questions whether they’d fly a trip without paycheck pressures- there should be a way for them to veto the bosses urging.

An institutional policy for handling the boss’ pressures can also go a long way toward easing the minds of crew worried about job security should they have to say- 'No.' After all- they don’t make corporate policy – that’s the boss’ job. And unless the boss is qualified and willing to take the left seat- they shouldn’t be making safety-of-flight decisions. The company hired the pilots to make those calls.

A little enlightenment for the bosses – courtesy of the chief pilot- flight-department manager or someone comparable – can help enlighten the executives to the reality.

Executive passengers- charter owners and client passengers need to know that when a pilot firmly resists flying- it’s unlikely laziness or unhappiness with the job – experience shows that professional corporate pilots seldom stay where they aren’t happy. Instead- the VIPs need to know that a pilot’s reluctance to fly under certain conditions is based on one unalterable fact.

The flight crew is always first to the scene of the crash – and that crew always prefers to live to be late another day- rather than start something that risks both their own lives and the lives of everyone in the back.

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