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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Complacency: Performance’s Evil Twin

Highly automated aircraft are the reality of the airline industry. While I've previously written a post similar to this, the message must be repeated, especially with the highlight of automation in and safety in the news today.

A great concern paralleling this automation is the inbreeding of complacency.

With the advancement of technology, we have moved away from teaching pilots how to fly jets, to teaching them how to program and manage--- stick and rudder skills lapse. Automated airplanes identify and report system failures--- systems knowledge lapses. We fly on the backside of the clock, for 10-12 hours, as our planes navigate across the oceans--- fatigue sets in. We have Computer Data Link Communication (CPDLC) and no longer provide position reports--- boredom sets in.

Unfortunately the magic and high performance of the modern-day aircraft has created many challenges: How to stay alert and involved, and avoid CFIT.

CFIT: Controlled Flight Into Terrain

It’s hard to imagine how a pilot could fly an airplane into the ground, but it happens. The mind’s ability to believe what it wants to see overpowers the reality of what is, and when there isn’t time to analyze the difference. Pilots assume their automated plane is going where it’s supposed to go because it’s done the right thing for the previous hundred flights. And we know that the impact of fatigue is equally as bad as drinking.

A Turkish 737 crashes short of the runway in Amsterdam because of a radio altimeter flag. But that accident didn’t occur because of a system failure. The flag was a warning that the pilots failed to acknowledge. The plane responded to a faulty system-- yes. But the lack of crew response-- a 90 second delay of required thrust--- is why that plane crashed.

The fight against complacency extends beyond the automation of the aircraft, but also to seat position. I remember when I first started flying jets, how I assumed the captain knew everything-- a misleading assumption, which can extend to any crew member. That old saying, “assume is to make an ass out of u and me” is true. Don’t assume anything, especially in an airplane. That 737 flight above had a check airman in the left seat.

Note: If you have had the opportunity to read Flight For Control you may recognize this accident. While the novel is fiction, as are the actions of the characters, the reality of this crash was not.

The mind will attempt to justify the abnormal.

Don’t assume the plane is doing what it’s supposed to, and don’t assume the guy in the left or right seat knows what he’s doing either. We must trust... but trust “yourself” too... and verify. If something doesn't look right, speak out.

How do we combat complacency?
  • Have a plan of action as to how you’d fly the descent, approach, departure, etc., Then make sure the airplane is following your plan, not the other way around. When she’s not performing the way you think she should, your mind will begin to query as to why.
  • Know your systems. When something happens at the most inopportune time... you will know why, and be able to solve the problem.
  • When you see something that’s not right, your brain will go into a "disbelief" mode. Have confidence in yourself to get out of the situation, and ask questions later.
  • Prepare yourself to be the best you can be. Physically and mentally. There might be a time you're unexpectedly, or unknowingly a single pilot.
  • Don’t trust your plane. She may have told you the truth a thousand times, but the time she lies to you may be the last.

Complacency is the battle in the automated world. The automated world is here to stay.
Take on that fight, and win the war.

Fly Safe!

Enjoy the Journey~

~ Karlene


  1. Very well said and bravo to you for saying it. Complacency can be a deadly thing, especially for pilots. But this is also great advice that applies to all walks of life!

    1. Thank you Heather! This was an old post... but one that needed to be repeated.

  2. Timely post. Complacency was a problem for me this weekend when my radios failed while doing a series of Touch and Goes. Because I had ALWAYS got clearance to land or do a T&G, and I was concentrating on what type of approach I was about to do, I didn't notice at first that things had gone silent. Eventually I twigged, but I think I did 2 takeoffs without clearance - on the 2nd one I noticed the solid red light from the tower, but I was already wheels up and it took a few seconds to realize that I had just taken off against the tower's light clearance. When things ALWAYS go a certain way, a small change my not be immediately obvious......

    1. Thank you D.B. Yes... when things go south, the little things that matter.

  3. What an important reminder to stay alert, pay attention, and know what feels right! My favorite line: "Have confidence in yourself to get out of the situation, and ask questions later." This is such great advice, for life as well as for flying (but I'm really glad to know pilots are reading this!)

  4. Heather, you are so right--- all walks of life. Especially in your work, too. Focus is the key!
    Thank you so much for your comment!

  5. D.B. Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your story. How easy that can happen. And, a sinking feeling to have wheels up and see the red. I hope the tower was understanding. It's amazing how some of us get lucky and learn from our mistakes... others it bites them. All we can do is keep our eyes open and keep reminding each other to pay attention.

    Thanks so much for your comment!

  6. Hi Linda, Thank you so much for your comment. I'm thinking this could be good advice for drivers too! Okay, almost anything. Hopefully pilots are reading-- I love D.B.'s comment.

  7. Ouch! I think a lot of us have had a sinking feeling like that at some time.
    Sounds like the controller was nice about it and did some practice radio-out afterwards.
    When I do something like that, I get paranoid and go find the NASA form, fill out my excuse and mail it in. :-)


  8. Thanks for the comment Tom... Beg for forgiveness, sometimes that's the only way!

  9. Soooo well said Karlene.
    I remember when I first started to study aeroscience, reading about the main issue with KAL crashes-communication in the front of the plane. The Co & FE were afraid to speak up!
    Its great to see someone talking about it. K

  10. Thanks for the comment Karla. So much research has been done on this very issue. But sometimes, depending upon the culture of the airline, the "I am Captain, I am God" mentality still exists. We just can't let the attitude stop us from speaking up.

  11. Thank you Chats! From you, that means a lot!

  12. Karlene, once again you hit the spot right on! Great article, which I think should be something implemented to every flight school AND professional ground schools.

    So many times do we learn everything about the airplane studiously only to forget it the minute the checkride is over. I like to keep all the airplane data and POH on my smartphone so that I can access and review them during downtimes.

    Keep up the good work!

  13. Thanks Jean! I agree completely. My husband actually got me an iPad so I can have the airplane manuals on mine. A great idea to read during down time.

    I believe complacency avoidance can be taught, and yes-- it should!
    Thanks for your comment!

  14. Hey Karlene,

    As another professional airline pilot, I have to agree with you 100%.

    A few employers ago, on TWO separate flights with two DIFFERENT Captains flying red-eyes into JFK, we got the proverbial slam-dunk clearance to land on runway 31L. On both occasions, when it became clear we were not going to have a stabilized approach, we went missed and continued the climb out until I announced "SPEEDBRAKE"!!

    Both flying pilots had forgotten to stow the speedbrake when they abandoned their approach. I guess that's why you have a PM (pilot monitoring)!!! Also, most jet transports don't climb very well with FULL speedbrake out and it's very hard to increase your speed. Now, what was all that vibration.....!!!

    Your article hit it all on the nail. Doesn't matter if you are the Captain, First Officer, Check Airman or New Hire. If something doesn't look or feel right - speak up! I'd rather do that every time than fill out the accident reports or worse....

  15. Vagabond, Thank you so much for your comment. I am so glad you were able to experience that and talk about it after. I too was on an approach--- slam dunk-- and the speedbrake was extended. But they continued. Check airman with a captain student. I was in the jumpseat, new to the plane. When we received the Terrain. Terrain. I was the one who realized it was still extended and called it out. All eyes are of value. I, too, am a firm believer.

    We can't talk about this enough. Thank you!

  16. Very good post Karlene. It's weird because yesterday I just marshalled in one of our professors who has taught us CRM in school. I believe that I have had the advantage of getting so much more classroom and simulator training and so on about CRM and SMS and analysis of crashes while others who have gone through regular flight school may not have had the privilege to.

    Also brings about a good book by William Langewiesche called Inside the Sky and it talks about how we operate in 'the sky' and as much as we call it home for us aviators. It is unknown to us. Even these machines, we can familiarize ourselves with them over and over but we must not become too comfortable in them. For every takeoff we must take that second or half second to brace ourselves so that we know that anything can happen.

    Anticipate. Mitigate. Manage.

    Anywho I just saw this news report about the AF447 crash. Wondering what your thoughts were.

    Fly safe everyone!

    1. Ramiel, Thank you so much for this comment. I love the aspect that you're using your ground position to learn everything you can. I wonder if the fact that you have an eye to the sky flying, if you look at CRM differently in school than your classmates?

      I did see that report. Some was accurate, but when she had the flight numbers wrong... made me wonder. Then the "expert" didn't know what TOGA was. But the real issue is, if the other pilot attempted to push on the stick, while the other pilot was pulling up... they would have had a dual input message.

      More to come soon.
      Thank you for the great comment!

  17. Karlene, thank you for the informative post, and as always, the photos to go with - especially the one with your NATS chart ;). To echo others' comments, because they can not be echoed enough: speaking up is probably the most important thing to learn in flight school. My instructor is very strict about such things, not because he wants to set one up for failure, but because he wants you to be the best pilot. He is extremely serious when he asks, "Do you have any questions for me?" Speak now or forever hold your life and others at stake. Also, an iPad is a must have for any pilot. It saves space from carrying many books and manuals around. My flight instructor never ceases to amaze me with the many cool apps and manuals on his. I am actually in the process of saving for one so that I can have my materials and a digital camera on me at all times. ;)

    1. Hi Jeremy, you should be on the iPad test case for the airlines. I know many airlines are going that way. I love your comment on how your instructor asks. I'm thinking a great blog title, "Speak now or forever hold your life"
      Thanks so much for your comment!


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