Professionalism – On Being a Cockpit Skeptic

Professionalism in aviation has been in the news a lot recently. FAA Administrator Randy Babbit has spoken on the need in light of several recent high profile events such as the Colgan crash in Buffalo and the NWA overshoot of its destination.

One of the hallmarks of a professional aviator is being a skeptic – a healthy skeptic. Or in the words of Ronald Reagan – “Trust but verify”.

Back in the mid 90s when controllers could still ride cockpit jumpseats in airliners in what was known as the FAM program, I had the opportunity to observe many flight crews up close.

A memorable experience was in a B767. We were going from BDL to MCO on a cold snowy winter morning. While running the Before Start checklist, the crew discovered an inoperative APU sensor. A call to Operations brought a pair of mechanics out to the aircraft. After much switch flipping, circuit breaker setting and trips out to the ramp and back to the cockpit, the mechanics advised the captain the repair would have to deferred until reaching a maintenance base. The crew consulted the MEL (a document that lists what equipment is required for flight) and determined they could dispatch but were restricted to a lower cruise altitude. This brought out the flight plan and after some keyboard work on the FMS, the crew decided they could make the trip at the lower cruise altitude but would need additional fuel to dispatch legally. So, another call to operations brought the fuel truck out for a few thousand more pounds of Jet-A.

The fueler dutifully dropped the fuel slip on the center console and wished the captain a good trip. Remember, this was a cold snowy morning, so every trip to the cockpit by a fueler or mechanic in heavy parka and gloves was accompanied by a blast of cold air and snowy feet stamping. By now, an hour after scheduled departure, there had been a steady flow of people – mechanics, gate agents, flight attendants, rampers – in and out of the cockpit. Then the crew discovered that the fueler had put too much fuel in one side creating a fuel imbalance – one more trip out to the aircraft to balance the fuel load and we were finally ready to go.

The Captain, a very senior fellow, looked around the cockpit littered with fuel slips, discarded copies of the flight plan, coffee cups, etc. and said “Way too much stuff has happened in this cockpit this morning”. He instructed me to close the cockpit door and take a seat. He then started preparing the aircraft from scratch. He and the First Officer ran the First Flight of the Day checklist, checked the position of every switch and every circuit breaker, and reloaded the flight plan in the FMS before even considering an engine start. He said he just had a feeling that too many people had been doing too many things at once. He was being a Cockpit Skeptic. I thought to myself “This is the kind of guy I want flying my wife and family on a crummy weather day like this”.

Take that forward to our flying. How many times have you been interrupted in a flying task? Did you ever have to go get a quart of oil or call a lineman over to top off the tanks? Have a checklist interrupted by the controller calling with your clearance? Do you just try and pick up the checklist where you left or start over?   After the fuel truck leaves, turn off the cell phone and do another walk around. You may be surprised by what you find. Being a skeptic can be a healthy trait.

Fly safe.