ICARUS Cockpit Culture of Fly Till You Die


Greek Mythology told of a story with a father named Daedalus. He warned his son Icarus not to fly too high, or the sun would melt his waxen wings. However, the boy, intoxicated with flight, soared above his cautious father. In the clear blue sky, the warmth of the sun dissolved his delicate wings, causing him to plunge to his death in the green sea below. The myth of Icarus is used to illustrate the ancient Greek word hubris, a term for the overweening human pride and vanity that often result in tragedy.

Hubris seems to be alive and well in the cockpit of global aviation around the world today which is based on ego, pride, machismo, and their god complex. There is another issue at hand which is sadly still in play today.  This is the social pecking order that revolves around the shortcomings stemming from the rigid “Hierarchy of the Monarchy” which still persists in the authoritative cockpit culture even today. After numerous tragic crashes where this was spelled out in such events as Avianca over Long Island in 1990 where the First Officer and Engineer would not speak up or challenge the Captain about running out of fuel. There is another factor which is the fear factor and stigma. The cockpit after all these many years is still like living in a 1960’s episode of Mad Men. Although, women have finally infiltrated this once men’s only space, it is still for the most part run like a Boy’s Club with a code out of a Fraternity.  If you speak up, document a fume event or document your injury as a pilot or god forbid dare to document the holy grail of an aircraft logbook as having a fume event, then you are not a team player, you are weak, you are not a macho pilot and you may be kicked out or ostracized from the “Boy’s Club.”  The final fear is career suicide.

A pilot who reports and steps out of line is deemed as a crackpot, conspiracy theorist, trouble maker and unfit to fly. There is a cause and effect like much of the Ying and Yang of the universe.  The effect here can equal airline management taking action by removing the pilot from flying. If he is not removed then he just may not pass his next Class A Medical Certificate and then have his license canceled. It costs a small fortune to get into this occupation, countless flight hours, huge personal sacrifices, not to mention a ton of cash. Once a pilot has made it, he has seniority, paid his dues and has upgraded to the left seat as Captain, then there is alot at stake. They are finally where they wanna be, living their dream and doing a job they love. So if it means losing that no matter how dangerous, how unsafe and the fact that they could die at the controls while taking everyone with them. Then this is a risk that many will continue to take without their passengers consent or knowledge.

This complacency that we saw with Icarus, the Hubris machismo god complex from the early golden Mad Men era of aviation, the “Hierarchy of the Monarchy” which was proven fatal for flights like Avianca and the fear of losing their career by being ostracized or dismissed from flying is all still very alive and well today as it has been since the very beginning of aviation. Sadly not a whole lot has changed in this cockpit culture after decades to where we are today.  Aircraft have modernized, politics have progressed, technology has progressed but the cockpit mindset is still living in the Dark Ages. Many of us have fought for the emphasis of Dual CRM Training for initial and recurrent training to work towards updating this dangerous cockpit culture. After some serious well publicized aircraft disasters, CRM Crew Resource Management training had it’s 15 minutes in the spot light when aviation felt it had to act.  This was shortly after the 1977 Tenerife disaster where two 747’s collided causing the worst disaster in aviation history.  Yet, much of this was just posing and going through the motions in aviation until the attention died down. We have a very short memory in Aviation and we forget our lessons very quickly.

You would think that initial and recurrent training would be better, more in-depth and more advanced in this area than ever before.  Shockingly the training time and emphasis on this area has done the exact opposite and has gone down. As Avianca and the Tenerife disasters are just a faint memory to many now, well so is the CRM program. Airlines have once again opted for less is more and cost cutting in this area. CRM has sadly been eliminated all together in many airline programs.  The recurrent has dropped down to just one day where much of the work is now done at home without classroom interaction or discussion in CBT Computer Based Training format. The day has gone from 2 days to now just 1 day.  This one day is very time constrained and jam packed with not a moment to lose. Trainers have to rush just to hit their timed targets with just the minimum required information. This leaves very little time for discussions about Fume Events, Cockpit Culture and a Dual in person Cockpit and Flight Attendant CRM session which one would think as being the most important lesson of the day. Well, guess what it doesn’t even happen at all now. It is not a priority and it has fallen onto the airline budget cost cutting floor.

Therefore, if this is our past history and our present operational mindset, then what kind of future can we expect from Aviation and future legislative policy change ?  It is not looking promising. As this is sadly all by design by airline management, aircraft manufacturers and the powers that be.  The last thing they want is for First Officers and Flight Attendants to have a culture of empowerment where they are encouraged to speak up, report and challenge safety with one another. Oh they may say that in their convoluted corporate mission statements and public media policies. Yet, the reality always has been and continues to be that this CRM and reporting policy is “Frowned Upon” as quoted by one of our female Captains. Airlines want the historical “Hierarchy of the Monarchy” to remain intact.  One where what a Captain says goes, where he is running his own little dictatorship and we are all just the minions blindly doing as we are told like good little soldiers while never questioning or speaking out about anything. So until this very complex Cockpit Culture of fear, intimidation and denial changes then aviation will always continue to remain a very unsafe, unstable and unpredictable place.

Knowledge is Power


Lack of CRM Cockpit: Risk Factors Article

Time Magazine: Fly Till I Die Article

National Geographic: Cockpit Culture

FAA Report: Avianca Flight 52

Business Insider: KLM, Panam Disaster

KLM, Panam Disaster Documentary

FUME EVENT “Aviation’s Biggest Lie”

Aviation Travel Writer: The Flight Times Blog

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