Friday, November 21, 2008

Psych Screening

This is an old story, with some new information about what happened when an Air Canada pilot became so mentally unstable during flight that the captain elected to have him forcibly removed from the cockpit. The captain made the PA announcement that amateur pilots' dreams are made of and the answer came from one of the flight attendants, a commercially licenced pilot with an expired IFR. She occupied the right seat for the remainder of the flight.

It's not unusual for flight attendants to be licenced pilots. For those already pursuing a career as a professional pilot, the job of flight attendant provides financing and acclimatization to the lifestyle. Flight attendants who didn't plan on becoming pilots are exposed to the environment, thus susceptible to the aviation addiction, and may be sucking into the vortex. I have known more than one person who has simultaneously been working as a commercial pilot on small aircraft and working as a flight attendant for a major airline. It's not clear whether the FA in this case had professional piloting experience or just a commercial pilot licence. Either way, she proved useful to the flight and they landed safely.

Air Canada has a rigid psychological screening programme as part of their interview process. I've actually spoken with an Air Canada recruiter who says that sometimes candidates the panel really likes and who score well in the simulator are rejected by the psych evaluation. The recruiters don't get to know what was "wrong" with the rejected candidates, but I wonder if the psych screening is selecting people who think just like the white males born in the 1950s who made up the airline when the ideal pilot profile was developed.

Events like this reflect the stress involved in the responsibility for a large airplane and trying to hold an aviation career together despite economic fluctuations, mergers, pay cuts and the risk of losing everything over a medical problem that would only be a minor blip in many other careers. And I can't help thinking that it's a tiny piece of vengeance for the people whose career progress was halted because they would or would not "like to see a film about an otter" or did or did not "prefer gardening to making wooden toys."

Oh and I asked Magic 8-Ball if I would be an airline pilot again and it told me You May Rely On It. I guess I should do something about that then, eh?

Edit: Reader Christopher provides a link to the report made by the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents in Ireland (where the flight landed). It shows that the captain didn't make an Airplane!-like call for pilots, merely asked an FA to check the manifest for company pilots, and gives some interesting details on the removal. The report commends the captain for his good CRM and professional actions, and also mentions that the FO's condition improved in hospital.


Scott Johnson said...

This brings to mind the story of Auburn Calloway, the hammer-wielding flight engineer who attacked his crewmates on a FedEx 727 in 1994.

Calloway apparently knew he was about to get the axe, and decided he'd give his captain and f/o the hammer instead so his family could collect insurance. I believe his backup weapon was a spear gun.

Another one the screening clearly missed. :)

Lord Hutton said...

I was intending to post you that story because I wondered why a steward with a pilot qualification was working as a steward. Doesn't seem right

Anonymous said...

'The captain made the PA announcement that amateur pilots' dreams are made of...'

So true.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I can just hear the gasp as...

"Ladies and gentlemen--from the flight deck--would, ahh hmm, any of you out there who are licensed pilots make yourselves known to the cabin crew."

It would be exciting to get some right seat time in an Airbus.

Could I log it?



Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
'The captain made the PA announcement that amateur pilots' dreams are made of...'

So true.

You think so? Wow. So not me. Well, I'm talking about reality, not fantasy. I'm as amateur a pilot as they get and it would be my nightmare.

I just got off an airline flight, a packed 737. It was a beautiful clear VFR day. I could track my position 50 miles out as we overflew all the airports I spent my summer around. But the thought of being responsible for those 100 people, stepping into the cockpit with what I know now would scare the pee out of me. (I can say that, right?) To quote my favorite zen poet, "there are things we know we don't know".

It has happened, though. I can't remember if we've conversed about it before, but there was recently a SO sick with food poisoning ( really! ) enough a flight attendant was drafted to read checklists and relay radio messages. A non-pilot if I recall correctly. That came out just fine.

The one that haunts me of is the private pilot FA on Helios 522Not so happy an ending.

Then crazies. The dangerous wack-job FE Scott mentioned is as crazy was ever - thinks he deserves to get out of prison early. Do not google him, he doesn't deserve it.

In much, much brighter news, yes Aviatrix if you can be encouraged to (somehow) realize the dream of the Air Canada front office please do. It would be wonderful news for all of us wannabe readers.

Christopher said...

Here is a link to the actual incident report, rather than the media version of events:

Serious Incident: Boeing 767-333, C-FMXC, Oceanic Reporting Point MALOT, 28 January 2008: Report No 2008-027

Anonymous said...

Thanks Christoper for the report.

Here is a press report on the issue I vaguely recalled. No ASRS/NTSB report as far as I know.

For frank opinions on the worth of PP's in the cockpit in the AirCanada incident and similar, see pprune. I'm too insulted to post any links. :)

Anonymous said...

[mini rant]

The utility of a PPL on an airliner flight deck would be minimal, but the professionalism of PPR's loudmouths is certainly not enhanced by the degree of contempt they express towards people without airliner type ratings.

It is apparent that not all pilot training pipelines consider social skills to be in any way important.

[/mini rant]

Buzzoff said...

FWIW, the FedEx incident involved a jumpseating, not working, FedEx FE. He attacked the 3-member crew working the flight with BOTH the hammer and the spear gun.

Anonymous said...

Sara, I know it sounds kooky, and perhaps even a little naive, but yes, if there was a situation that demanded it, I would definitely step up, and I'm sure if there were 100 non-pilots on board, they would be happy to have SOMEONE to pin their hopes on.

I think peoplle would live, but I imagine the aircraft itself would need a little TLC once I got it on the ground. :)

Anonymous said...

I recall hearing about some incident not too long ago where the FO on some jet (a 757, I think) had a heart attack in flight, and they got some passenger with a PPL to help out in the cockpit. Fortunately, that type of aircraft only requires the mental effort of one person to land it, and has only a few moments where more than two hands are needed, so the passenger had to just deploy the flaps and landing gear when the captain told him, or something to that effect.

Anonymous said...


you think a PPL holder of average intelligence couldn't figure out how to operate a healthy modern airliner?

experienced well trained pilots are on board for when things go wrong...when it is the pilot that goes wrong, the aircraft itself is still really capable.

I'd be far more scared on a light twin than a modern Boeing if the pilot(s) went out. The latter has certified autoland that any button pushing teen with some aviation knowledge could figure out.

nec Timide said...

It's interesting that these incidents seem to invoke reactions more suitable for the situation portrayed in Flight into Danger (bonus trivia for Star Trek fans), and later spoofed in Airplane!.

When a flight crew member is incapacitated, the remaining pilot is fully capable of bringing the flight to a safe conclusion. It is good CRM to solicit help if it can be found. Even a PPL, knowing the lingo and what not to touch, would make the task easier. It is analogous to a doctor arriving at a serious accident and asking if anyone knows first aid.

Here is a report of the flight where the pilot suffered a heart attack and the co-pilot was assisted. Unfortunately it is a bit over sensationalized.

Aviatrix said...

Someone who knows a bit of first aid can be quite useful at a serious accident.

"Monitor this person's pulse, call me if it changes significantly."

"Apply pressure here."

"Continue CPR."

Heck, you just need to be able to stay calm and follow instructions.

"See if you can find any fingers."

Anonymous said...

I remember when I was interviewing there were stories about one psych evaluator who would seat you in a rocking chair and then note your rocking as you responded to various questions. And another who would ask the applicant if they had ever had sex with a small animal. Not sure what answer he wanted but one guy (who had an offer from another carrier) supposedly retorted with 'Is a pony a small animal?' and ended the interview on a sane note. Reminds you of all the hoops the original astronauts had to jump through.
No method is fool proof.

Buzzoff said...

Hey 'anon',
I hate to burst your bubble re: autoland, etc., but it's just a teensy bit more involved than Hollywood may have led you to believe...just maintaining communications with an untrained person might prove the greatest challenge. Oh, and what do MEAN they don't recognize the fact that the autopilot just uncoupled because they bumped a stab trim switch? The opportunities for things to go quickly and permanently awry are quite numerous in such a scenario. With a perfectly untrained civilian, on a nice day, in a modern airliner with autoland capability (not as much of the fleet as you might think, btw), I'd give them all even odds. And I'm an optimist.

dpierce said...

> The latter has certified
> autoland that any button
> pushing teen with some
> aviation knowledge could
> figure out.

Which is brilliant once said teen has navigated to and lined up with a similarly certified runway. (I'm on board with your comment in general, but there's too much of a perception that aviation is all push-button. (Eventually ...))

A buddy of mine who became a C-130 weapons instructor said the best part of the school was "having to prove you could fly all aspects of the aircraft all by yourself, chocks to chocks." In certain situations, it's possible you could lose your other pilot, after all.

Anonymous said...

buzoff: what sort of odds would you give the untrained person in the light twin?

i'd put it at at least 10 to 1 against a nice outcome, being optimistic. the light twin may have a panel mount gps that a button pusher can load a destination and approach into, and it may even have some sort of vnav capability, but it doesn't have managed speed with autothrottles, it doesn't have envelope protection, it doesn't have autoland, it doesn't have autobrakes...

if forced to work single pilot because the other pilot is incapacitated, would y'all rather be flying a complex non precision approach through an fms backed up by INS and GPS, or doing it raw data with an ADF needle in a light twin?

Buzzoff said...

Oh, the odds in a light twin would be worse, due to the lack of even a shot at using automatic flight controls to touchdown, of course. I don't really see the relevance, though.

You said, "This is really easy!" I said, "Er, not so terribly easy, actually." You said, "Well, um, it's easier than this OTHER thing over here!" See what I mean? What's your point?

Anonymous said...

Generally in reaction to stories like this, a few anecdotal reports from non-pilots who have tried to 'land' full motion simulators have cropped up on the aviation forums. Some of the people who've tried this have beeen simulator or avionics techs who would be quite familiar with how to use FMS automation and autoland. As of yet, however, I haven't seen any non-pilot credibly brag online about landing a simulator.

The only successful simulator landing by untrained persons that I am aware of is where the Mythbusters presenters succeeded in 'landing' a NASA-owned twin jet simulator. They had verbal guidance from a flight instructor, however, and the scenario was very likely tweaked to make this outcome possible.

The episode is 'Airplane Hour,' which should be available from your friendly local torrent provider.

Anonymous said...

I wondered how often this situation presents itself in light twin/complex GA aircraft?

I took a quick run through the AOPA Pinch Hitter course. In GA accidents, pilot incapacitation is only 0.55% of all causes.

I don't think I can recall a successful take-over by and landing by non-pilot.


Anonymous said...

Paul, depends on your definition of successful.

Turboprop twin (aero commander) 5/5/2005 North Las Vegas, Nevada

To finish my "contribution" to this thread, years ago I personally landed a MD80 at MSP with no flight experience, at night. It was a full-motion airline sim, not a PC. In reality, I think the hard part would be getting to that point and managing all the navigation and complex systems.

Anonymous said...

I just hope she got B767 First Officer pay for her time in the right seat!

LemonJelly said...

Hello "Other-Anon" commenter (s?)...

I caught that episode of mythbusters, it had both skydiving and flight practice in it. As a skydiver who sold his gear and gave up to the sport to (help) pay for flying lessons - I have to admit, I was especially interested in that episode.

A friend of mine who flys for Air Canada is promising to take me to an A320 sim sometime. I'm going out these 'what if' theories to the test then.

nec Timide said...

@aviatrix: Someone who knows a bit of first aid can be quite useful at a serious accident.

That was what I meant, but I do like your examples.

Anonymous said...

lemonjelly, you'll almost certainly be successful with an instructor (your friend) right there giving you advice. And you'll have a ball! The full-motion, level D sim is really a cool gadget (if a $30M device can still be called a gadget)! Enjoy!

Scott Johnson said...

@buzzoff: Yes, Calloway was jumpseating -- his crew were originally scheduled to fly that leg, but due to some delays they'd shot their time and had to rest, so a second crew was called in.

It was still a horrific situation. None of the three flying crew on that flight ever flew commercially again.