It’s not just physical skills which may atrophy from lack of flying; post-Covid, human factors are also in play. Lessons from PK8303. Guest commentary by Owen Sims, FRAeS, Senior Lecturer in Aviation at Solent University and a frequent speaker at WATS, APATS and EATS.
According to the preliminary report1, the crash of Pakistan Airways flight PK8303 in May 2020 resulted from dual engine failure, a consequence of catastrophic damage to both engines caused by contact, at speed, with the ground. This, in turn – and it was this salient detail that set heads shaking in wonder around the world – was because the crew attempted landing with the wheels up.
PK8303 crashed in a residential area of Karachi, killing 97 of the 99 on board and one on the ground.
All of us will, on occasion, do ‘something silly’. There are lapses of attention or slips of action, of course – but then there are those behaviours which might be placed into the (ostensibly oxymoronic) category of ‘deliberate yet unintentional’. We choose to behave in a way that is contrary to how we ourselves want to behave. “Why did I do that?”, we say; “what was I thinking?”. These almost never have the lethal consequences of PK8303, but almost always indicate the same issue: our behaviour results from an overwhelming emotional reaction.
Arguably, it should not come as a surprise that things go wrong when we fly – rather, that it ever goes right. Human beings’ natural place in the world is on the ground. Our brains have evolved to facilitate living in caves and hunting our food: sometimes we are actively thinking – we imagine how things could be, and then plan, reason and calculate our imaginings into reality – but the vast majority of our brain function is automatic, with the ultimate purpose of our survival2.
Emotional responses fall into this latter category – the ‘chimp’ brain. These are powerful and necessarily automatic neuro-chemical impulses that compel us into action to deal with a perceived threat (viz. attack, flee or withdraw).
Meanwhile, the creative and logical part of the brain – the ‘human’ brain – gives us, uniquely amongst living things, the capacity to overcome the limits of our genes. We can live together in vast cities; create corporations, money and nation states3; and fly.
And as long as our behaviour is determined by the human brain, things go well for us. However, behaviour dictated by the chimp brain is likely to be (at best) unhelpful. This is not stupidity or laziness. Rather, this is natural, highly evolved brain function in the wholly unnatural context of cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers attempting to fly, the paradox4 central to human activity is this: at the times when we most need our human brain to be calling the shots, the chimp brain is at its most powerful.
The tragedy of PK8303 began (as is virtually always the case) with an incipient error: a miscalculated descent which left the aircraft 5,000 feet too high with 15 miles to run to the airfield. This is a not uncommon lapse, easily resolved by increasing the distance to run; that, at least, is what the human brain will tell us. However, psychological evidence suggests that whenever things go wrong, the chimp brain automatically looks for something or someone to blame; this ‘blame impulse’ happens even when there is neither intent nor neglect associated with the outcome5; when it’s no-one’s fault. When the outcome actually is a result of our action, the blame impulse is far stronger. This blame generates powerful emotions: anger (at oneself or perhaps at others) and fear (of consequences). Before the human brain has even had a chance to process the situation and create a solution, the chimp brain has aggressively seized control and commanded action. This might explain (to me, at least) why the crew of PK8303 deployed the landing gear and steepened the dive.
A heightened emotional state makes us assume a ‘worst-case’ scenario, clouding our perception: the reality for PK8303 is expressed in terms of altitude, airspeed and options; but the crew likely perceived something like “this is a calamity – everything is going wrong – it’s my fault”. The effect of that thought is to increase the stress and the levels of activity in the chimp brain. Hence, as this approach continued, the pilot’s human brain rapidly lost capacity; as neatly demonstrated by the fact that, as the aircraft captured the glideslope, the gear was brought back up. An unthinking, automatic, chimp brain action: “at this point on the approach, I move the gear lever” – little more than a reflex.
But surely we train pilots to go around if the approach is unsafe? Well, in fact, do we? We train pilots how to go-around, and we tell them to go-around if an approach is unstable. How likely is it that a pilot would unwittingly fly an unstable approach during a training detail? And would the instructor berate them for having become unstable in the first place? Those whose flying work is chiefly confined to the simulator may be forgiven for forgetting that go-arounds are not normal6.
So, by far the most common thing (999 times out of 1000) for a pilot to do on approach is to continue to land – it’s what he or she is used to; it requires the least thought. When things are stressful, the human brain may say “go around”; the chimp brain says “land”; the more unstable the approach, the louder the chimp brain shouts. In the case of PK8303, this was even to the point of drowning out the auditory and visual signals generated by the aircraft. The overwhelming familiarity of landing creates the cruelly seductive illusion of safety. Only when the aircraft touched down on the engines and scraped along the runway did the pilot finally initiate a go-around, with the ultimate fatal result.
Stress, Emotion and Covid
Stress and emotion reduce capacity; put another way, a pilot's ability to do the job is directly co-related with their level of mental wellbeing. The peculiar workplace stressors which apply to pilots are well-documented7; to this we can now add Covid-19. It seems fair to suggest that the wellbeing of the majority of the world’s population has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Those employed in the aviation industry are, arguably, more at risk of poorer terms, harsher conditions and losing their jobs. For pilots, the thought that they may never fly again creates a yet further threat to mental health on an almost existential level (something to which I can attest from bitter personal experience – or by offering the anecdotal evidence of a former colleague who came close to suicide after losing his job)8. The CVR indicates9 that the crew of PK8303 came to work already highly preoccupied about Covid-19’s impact on their livelihoods. But the industry must be alive to the very real risk that that accident, far from being a terrible aberration, could be the first of many.
For the answer, we turn to the 5th Century BCE, and the words of Confucius (with thanks to Dr Seamus Phan of McGallen and Bolden): “for nations or entities to achieve orderliness and peace, people must return to traditional virtues. All virtues stem from ‘ren’”. Ren being part of ‘ren-ci’ – roughly, ‘benevolence and compassion’. Leaders in organisations (including regulators, ATOs and unions) have a responsibility – a safety case – to exercise compassion towards pilots and reduce (as far as possible) detriments to mental wellbeing.
“It’s a runway, not a motorway: get on the centreline!”, in the words of one of my former instructors. The attitude persists that pilot training is about eliminating mistakes, and the best way to do that is to make pilots afraid of making mistakes. Not only is this an impossible task, but it serves only to increase the levels of anger and fear if a mistake should be made. Pilots need to be encouraged (not forced) to fly defensively, praised for their ability to manage error when it, inevitably, occurs, and know that their industry will be on their side when it does (comments such as those of the Pakistani Aviation Minister – “the pilot and co-pilot [of PK8303] were not focussed”9 are, to put it mildly, unsupportive).
While we’re here, shall we mention money? The prospect of losing one’s job is bad enough; if one has re-mortgaged the house or blown the life savings to fund one’s training, the prospect takes on terrifying proportions. We want pilots to be risk-averse – yet the industry requires pilots to be willing to take enormous personal financial risk to gain entry. Meanwhile, many of the demands airlines make of their pilots are decidedly commercial in nature, rather than necessary for safety. It behoves airlines to ask the challenging question: “what behaviours can we do without?”, and then to encourage (maybe even mandate) the abandonment of these ‘extras’. Delays, inefficiencies and absenteeism need to be accepted, with compassion, at higher rates than normal in the short- and medium-term. Pilots operate their flights safely and efficiently – in that order.
Much poor mental health stems from the fact that humans are trying to go about their lives in a world which they have created, but for which they are not endowed by nature. In that sense, flying represents a microcosm of wider human endeavour. There is a probable link between the treatment of mental health conditions and improving flight training.
This link is two-directional. The core pilot competencies, identified by ICAO, are trained by practising the associated behaviours: such as ‘offering and accepting assistance, delegating when necessary and asking for help early’10. Applied in the cockpit, these make for safe and efficient flights; applied beyond the cockpit, they render everyday life more manageable. Not just for pilots, either: HR, crewing, NAAs, cabin crew, engineering – all in the industry could benefit from this constructive, competency-based approach to training. In this way, we may do more than reduce the negative impact of stress and emotion; training can make a positive enhancement to general mental wellbeing.
The crew of PK8303 found themselves in a difficult situation and sought a return to normality – i.e. the runway. Likewise, the aviation industry is in a difficult situation, and a desire to return, rapidly, to ‘how things were’ is entirely understandable. But, if we allow our efforts to be driven by our collective chimp brains we risk doing more damage than if we allow decisions to be made in line with our reason, our compassion and our human brain competencies. The industry faces many challenges over the coming years – technical, financial; even structural. But there has never been a more important time to consider the intelligent, reasoning, creative, emotionally vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human beings whom we place at the controls of our aircraft.
- Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Pakistan (2020). Accident of PIA flight PK8303 Airbus A320-214 reg no AP-BLD crashed near Karachi airport on 22-05-2020. Preliminary Investigation Report.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Harari, Y. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York: Random House.
- Peters, S. (2012). The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Program to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence, and Happiness. London: Vermillion.
- Laurent, S., Nuñez, N. and Schweitzer, K. (2016). Unintended, but still blameworthy: the roles of awareness, desire, and anger in negligence, restitution, and punishment. Cognition and emotion, 30(7), 1271-1288.
- Tzvetomir B., and Curtis, W. (2017). Final Report to Flight Safety Foundation: Go-Around Decision-Making and Execution Project. Alexandria, VA: Flight Safety Foundation.
- Cullen, P., Cahill, J. and Gaynor, K. (2021). A Qualitative Study Exploring Well-Being and the Potential Impact of Work-Related Stress Among Commercial Airline Pilots. Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors.
- Carroll, R. (2021). Warning over pilots’ mental health as planes return to skies. The Guardian, 2 June, (online).
- AFP (2020) Human error caused Pakistan plane crash that killed 97: Initial report. The Economic Times, June 25 (online).
- IATA (International Air Transport Association) (2013). Appendix A: Competencies and Behavioural Indicators. Evidence-Based Training Implementation Guide.