Distractions on the Flight Deck.
By Owen Zupp.
European economies are balancing on a knife’s edge as government’s debate exit strategies from the conflict in Afghanistan. From one end of the globe to the other, long term outcomes seem to be lost in the midst of the chaos and the media pumps the panic out as fast as the internet can carry it. These are uncertain times.
To such a backdrop I recently had cause to reflect upon the final days of a great airline that I once worked for; Ansett Australia. It had emerged from the shelter of the ‘Two-Airline Policy’ and survived the trauma of the 1989 pilot’s dispute, but ultimately fell as the new millennium dawned. As a workplace, it was wonderful. Morale was high and everyone felt that they were part of an extended family and exchanged greetings readily, regardless of their so-called ‘status’ within the company. And yet, the airline was doomed to fail.
With an ageing fleet and a myriad of aircraft types, the cost of keeping the fleet in the air was not proportionate to its size. Ultimately sections of the company were sold off and it was honed down to its bare essentials before being sold to Air New Zealand at an inflated price. Unfortunately when the new owners paused to look under the hood of their purchase the news wasn’t good. The engine was clapped out and the chassis was being held together by putty and despite a team of able-bodied drivers, mechanics and pit crew, the machine just couldn’t run any longer. The ‘family’ was Ansett’s greatest asset, but unfortunately airlines need a lot of expensive hardware in addition to heart-beats.
As I reflect on those final days, I recall the uncertainty that prevailed as the shadows of doubt fell upon the organisation. Company communications were replaced by ‘announcements’ and the employees became increasingly nervous about the security of their livelihoods. The most reliable source of information became the ‘Financial Review’ and some time before the final aircraft landed, the once proud workforce was starting to cast a sidewards glance at the lifeboats and take a head-count. It was an awful period that is often forgotten in the drama that unravelled when the airline finally fell.
As a pilot, it reinforced some very strong lessons that I had been taught earlier in my career. Fundamentally, at the very core, a pilot’s job is to safely navigate the aircraft to its destination. This task can be challenged by many things over time, as varied as the weather to personal fitness. Our radars are tuned for many of these hurdles and in fact they are often countered on a regular basis without a great deal of fuss. However, it is those left-field issues that aren’t always apparent, or even aviation-related that can have an insidious effect. Personal relationships, financial issues and job security may be located miles away from the aircraft, but deeply rooted in the cockpit.
As a young charter pilot I always remember that when the refueller required cash payment, it was time to start looking for a new job. It meant that the boss was obviously so low on funds that he couldn’t afford the fundamentals and unemployment was not far behind. No job in aviation comes with a guarantee these days. In those last weeks of Ansett the pressure really began to tell on some people’s faces. With mortgages and school fees falling due, the uncertain future weighed heavily on those caught in the cross-fire and stress and loss of sleep began to manifest in many ways.
I was lucky. I was relatively young, well ahead on my mortgage and married to a great girl with a great job and, at that time, no kids. I didn’t want the airline to fail, but I also knew that I was not under any immediate pressure even if it did. So many of my workmates weren’t so lucky and were far more advanced down their life’s journey. In retrospect, watching so many good people start to falter under the load was the saddest part of the whole process for me. In the end, some even took their own lives. However, regardless of the building pressure, the task was still to operate the aircraft safely. The passengers had paid to fly and placed their faith in Ansett and its people and we had to maintain professional integrity and repay that vote of confidence. I was proud to see how my fellow pilots were able to shut the noise of the outside world down once that flight deck door was closed and focus on the real job. On the one occasion that the stress was too great in those final days, one workmate stood himself down and I’ve always respected him for that.
The truth is that even good news can be distracting. When I discovered that I had secured a job with Ansett, it took every ounce of my concentration to fly a Beechcraft Baron over a familiar route. I was so ‘over the moon’ and looking ahead that I had to consciously smack myself back to the here and now. As pilots, that is our job, for better or worse. Regardless of what transpires around us, we must focus on the safe operation of our aircraft. I am not saying that it’s easy or fair, but it’s just the way it is. Aviate-Navigate-Communicate takes precedence over all else and if we can’t find the head-space to achieve that then we need to walk away.
Headlines, bank statements and a spiralling personal life have no place in the cockpit. They are both potentially fatiguing and distracting and from our earliest flight lessons we are warned about these two killers. If it was merely a lack of sleep or an incident in the cabin, we would immediately assess our priorities and make our decisions accordingly. But the issues are not always clear cut and sometimes they are cumulative, so we must be particularly vigilant. Those last days of Ansett called for such vigilance and it is a skill we must never lose, particularly now, for these are uncertain times.