In addition to my work with LifeWings, I am an international Captain on the MD-11 aircraft for FedEx Express. I’ve been flying professionally for 33 years. Every year for 33 years I have had to undergo a competency check, either in the real airplane or in a simulator. For 24 of those 33 years I have had two competency checks per year in a simulator - for a total of 48 checks.
This week I just completed my annual competency check in the MD-11 simulator, and it was one of the most challenging tests I have ever had in aviation.
What was interesting about this check is that the basic strategy for testing my competency as a captain was completely different from anything I had ever experienced before. For years the approach to testing aviation skills was much like batting practice. Get in a simulator and demonstrate to the check pilot that you could handle a long list of potential malfunctions and emergencies. The list never varied from year to year - engine failures, electrical problems, hydraulic malfunctions, wind shear recoveries, and landings in bad weather - all accomplished at the same simulated airport.
The disconnect with the real world is that the inability to fly the maneuvers and handle the emergencies tested annually in the simulator are rarely the cause of accidents. Prior to the advent of teamwork training for airline crews, almost 80% of airline accidents were caused primarily by a breakdown in the teamwork and communication skills of the flight crew.
Thus, the check ride for this year had a totally different approach. During the briefing for the test, the company check pilot was very clear the purpose of the event was to check my ability to operate the airplane safely by using both a high level of technical competence and effective teamwork and communication skills (CRM) with my co-pilot. Could we solve complex problems in a challenging scenario by working together effectively while simulating a regular flight from Point A to Point B? No batting practice this time.
In short, could I manage the human factors?
When you think about what really causes airline accidents this evaluation emphasis makes sense.
Our test involved a simulated flight from Taipei, Taiwan to another airport in Taiwan just 30 minutes away. The scenario tested our ability to respond to a potentially deadly wind shear, thunderstorms, an unexpectedly closed airport, holding patterns, a divert to Hong Kong, gusty winds, poor visibility, difficult to understand controller language, an engine failure, another minor engine malfunction, another divert from Hong Kong to an airport in mainland China, low fuel, and an approach and landing in bad weather conditions.
After two and a half hours of intense concentration I was totally spent. Without a technically competent co-pilot, and exceptionally effective teamwork and communication, we couldn’t have carried the flight off safely. Had I not listened to the co-pilot’s inputs and suggestions I would have made a couple of serious mistakes. Had she not listened to me she would have made a few too.
Together, we crosschecked everything, detected and corrected our small mistakes before they became serious or potentially fatal, and eliminated the human factor of fallibility as a source of undetected deadly error.
We demonstrated how two technical experts could also function as an expert team.
My experience this week makes me think of the application to health care. The data on why medical mistakes happen is almost identical to that of aviation. Seventy to 80% of preventable medical errors have some sort of communication error as the main cause. Almost 70% of sentinel events have a breakdown in teamwork and communication as a primary cause.
If the causes are the same for both professions - the cure might be similar too. A commitment to more and better designed simulation training, and effective teamwork training and checklist usage for everyone will go a long way for improving patient safety and quality outcomes.