Sumwalt Keeps Pressure on Pilot Professionalism

 - September 1, 2012, 4:15 AM
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt

As an industry, aviation demands unwavering attention to procedure and regulations, and when those procedures are ignored and result in an accident, they garner the attention of NTSB member Robert Sumwalt and his colleagues. Last year pilot and air traffic controller professionalism landed on the Safety Board’s “Most Wanted” list for the first time, following a spate of concluded accident reports that indicated lapses in this area.

“There have been a disturbing number of individual incidents of noncompliant behavior, intentional misconduct or lack of commitment to essential tasks,” the Board stated. “These occurrences demonstrate an erosion of pilot and air traffic controller professionalism.” The Board is currently debating whether the category should remain on this year’s list, to be released this fall.

“I do believe that the vast majority of flights in this country are conducted with the highest degree of professionalism and are controlled by professionals as well,” Sumwalt told AIN, “but unfortunately we do see those cases where the levels of professionalism are not where they should be.”

Between 2001 –and 2010 the Board identified at least 86 accidents in turbine-powered aircraft operations involving companies lacking adequate procedures or flight crews not adhering to those policies. Those accidents claimed 149 lives.

While those accidents represent the worst case, there is no accounting of how many non-professional, risky activities are performed regularly by flight crews and air traffic controllers because unless they result in a major accident, they do not receive the Board’s attention. In fact, they might not even be reported.

As an example, Sumwalt, a former airline pilot who headed a corporate flight department before joining the NTSB, remembers an instance where a pilot was attempting to perform a preflight checklist from memory rather than reading it. “When I called him on it he said, ‘We’re all professionals; we know what we’re doing.’ Well, his idea of professionalism was different from mine.”

That “idea of professionalism” should be tied to some form of metric or rubric to be used as a tool in both self-assessment and as a means of evaluation for others, according to Sumwalt. “Professionalism [demands] things like checklist usage, sterile-cockpit compliance [and several other] attributes that you would want to evaluate.”

As a member of the Safety Board, Sumwalt has on many occasions found himself in the NTSB audio lab listening to cockpit voice recordings of pilots violating the sterile-cockpit rule. “When they are sitting there telling jokes and having a good time I don’t usually find it funny, but they are having the time of their lives, not realizing that that cockpit voice recording is going to end shortly,” he said. “It’s sad how things change in their voices when they realize that this flight is coming to an end in a manner they never intended.”

Recent accidents have sharpened the Board’s focus on preventing repeats of accidents such as the Colgan Air Q400 crash in 2009, the collision between a Piper Lance and a tour helicopter over the Hudson River in New York that same year and the fatal accident of a Hawker 800 in Owatonna, Minn., in July 2008, all attributable in some manner to unprofessional behavior on the part of pilots or ATC, but the discussion is not a new one. In his arguments in favor of including professionalism as one of the most serious safety concerns, Sumwalt found a Board recommendation letter from 1974 that described crew behavior in several accidents as ranging from a “casual acceptance of the flight environment to flagrant disregard for prescribed procedures and safe operating procedures.”

A 1999 study by the Flight Safety Foundation determined that intentional noncompliance was a factor in nearly 40 percent of the accidents reviewed. That data, when combined with evidence from other sources such as the LOSA (line operations safety audit) Collective, a group of researchers, safety professionals, pilots and airline representatives, forms a compelling picture of a problem that endures. “They have found out that crews who intentionally deviate from SOPs [standard operating procedures] average making three times more errors, mismanage more errors and get themselves into more undesired aircraft situations compared with those crewmembers who do follow the SOPs,” Sumwalt noted.

While the number of accidents attributable directly to lack of professionalism has seemingly been in abeyance over the last few years, in Sumwalt’s view, even one such accident is too many, and getting organizations to adopt and follow SOPs remains crucial.

“You can’t instill in somebody the desire to do something right,” said Sumwalt, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying.”