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Government Calls in Pilots To Discuss Flight Crew Discipline

August 27, 1987

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ The government is calling together chief pilots of the nation’s airlines to discuss flight crew discipline after a rash of embarrassing mistakes and growing indications that pilot failure caused the country’s second worst air accident.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Allan McArtor, in remarks opening the session today, was expected to warn the more than 300 pilots to tighten procedures in airliner cockpits and put a halt to needless mistakes that can turn into tragedy.

Federal authorities investigating the Aug. 16 crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 after a takeoff from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport have said the flight crew may have violated one of the basic rules of flying by not setting the jetliner’s wing flaps properly for takeoff.

Psychologists have been concerned about flight crew coordination and complacency in commercial airliners for years, citing long working hours, a high level of routine and increasing reliance on automated flight systems.

The meeting called by McArtor was described by agency spokesmen as a ″fact-finding session″ that the commissioner hopes will lead to improved pilot training programs and other actions aimed at reducing the risk of mistakes in the cockpit.

″We must return to the basics, the basics that put all of us in the left (captain’s) seat - in a word, our professionalism,″ McArtor chided a group of veteran pilots at a safety seminar recently.

Most of those summoned by the FAA are senior managers, so-called chief pilots who head operations departments at their respective airlines. Officials of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 34,000 rank- and-file pilots, also were expected to present their views.

″We hope it’s going to be constructive,″ Julie Graves, a spokeswoman for the pilots union, said. ″We hope it’s not just taking pilots to the woodshed and getting a lecture.″

According to federal statistics, about 40 percent of airline accidents involve an error in the cockpit although in many cases a combination of causes is involved.

This year a rash of embarrassing pilot mistakes drew attention to Delta Air Lines, including one incident in which a plane almost collided with another jetliner over the North Atlantic and another in which a plane came close to ditching into the Pacific after the pilot shut down both engines.

″The reasons (for a pilot mistake) are probably as extensive as the reason any person makes a mistake - a distraction, fatigue, task overload or stress. It can be complacency. It can be inexperience,″ said Clay Foushee, a NASA psychologist who specializes in human factors in aviation.

The Aug. 16 Northwest crash killed 156 people - the second highest air crash total in U.S. history. If the theory holds true that the Northwest pilots neglected to set their plane’s wing flaps, it will not be the first time a pilot has forgotten to perform one of the most basic pre-flight tasks in aviation, according to reports filed with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Since 1981, there have been at least seven reports filed through NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System about incidents in which pilots forgot to set the proper flap position during takeoff.

In six cases, warning alarms sounded and the takeoffs were aborted, while in the other incident the pilot adjusted his takeoff speed and lifted off safely, according to the reports, which do not include the names of the airlines involved or the identities of the flight crews.

After one incident, the co-pilot blamed the failing on ″complacency and routine.″ For six months the crew had departed with the same flap setting, but then came a flight when wind conditions required a different one.

″The routine which had developed turned into a very tough habit to break,″ the co-pilot said in the report to NASA.

The most modern airplanes such as the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, which was involved in the Detroit accident, or the Boeing 737, 757 or 767 series have highly automated flight systems and an array of warning devices designed to protect against human error.

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