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Why Planes Crash & Co-Pilots in Family Life

Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book, ‘Outliers’, gives us all insights into why plane crashes happen and what we can do to stop them. Perhaps his insights can stop families crashing as well.
The relationship between the captain and his co-pilot is very similar to the relationship and communication skills required for a father and mother who together co-pilot a successful family through the storms of life. It is the quality of that relationship that underpins the quality of the communication between a mother and father. It is always about reducing the power distance gap.

In an interview with Fortune Business Magazine Malcolm Gladwell said, “Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
But Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren’t as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.”

I talked to a friend of mine who is an airline captain for one of the biggest airlines in the world and he agreed that modern aircraft are deliberately designed to be flown by two people who actually cross check and complement one another. The simple reason for this is that two is better than one, because when it comes to a plane full of people, safety is everything. However, potential dangers still exist.

Sometimes a crew, through their over-familiarity with each other, will become complacent, take things for granted and miss the obvious. Other times, an unfamiliar crew will lack the necessary communication and coordination skills required to ‘bridge the gap’ and again, critical items will be overlooked. Each can lead to a disaster and both can be fatal.

In the article, ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ Alex Marino says: “I’ve heard, that most airplane accidents take place during takeoff and landing. I’ve also heard that accidents occur more often because of pilot errors and less so because of mechanical problems.
But why? Why do pilots make errors? What kind of errors do they make?
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘The Outliers’, a large number of plane crashes happen because of miscommunication and language issues.
There are two places where miscommunication occurs: among pilots in the cockpit and between air traffic controllers and pilots. And, there are two major reasons for miscommunication. The first one is cultural and is measured by a power distance index, driven by respect to authority and attitude toward hierarchy.

The second one is driven by ranking and subordination on the job. It causes co-pilots to use highly mitigated speech and to avoid confronting the main pilot when necessary.
Here are 2 examples:
Example #1 (during landing):
A Korean Air plane flying from Korea to Guam was going through bad weather and stormy clouds. The captain had committed the plane to visual landing, which meant that he had to be able to see the airport runway. Here is some of the conversation among the pilots. Pay close attention to a couple of comments from the supporting crew to the captain and to how the captain responds to them, or doesn’t:
First officer: Do you think it rains more in this area?
Captain: (silence)
Flight engineer: Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.
Captain: Yes. They are very useful.
What the first officer is trying to do is warn the pilot that it may not be safe to do a visual approach without a backup plan for landing, in case the runway is not visible. Such communication of hinting from first officer to pilot is not uncommon in Korean culture. However, driven by respect to authority and fear of upsetting their superior, the co-pilots ultimately contributed to the plane crash as they allowed the pilot to start a visual landing without an alternative.
Example #2
The 2nd example of inadequate communication between the first officer and the pilot is illustrated by the two pilots of an Air Florida plane in 1982. Here is some of the chat in the cockpit prior to takeoff:
First officer: See all those icicles on the back there and everything?
First officer: Boy, this is a losing battle here on trying to de-ice those things, it gives you a false feeling of security, that’s all it does
First officer: Let’s check those wing tops again, since we’ve been sitting here a while?
Captain: I think we get to go here in a minute.
Later that plane crashed because of problems caused by ice on the wings. If the co-pilot had more strongly advocated his opinion and forced the pilot to de-ice the wings before takeoff, that incident would have been avoided. Although the co-pilot had hinted 3 times at the possible dangers of not de-icing the wings, the pilot ignored his comments as trivial and unimportant…
So what can they do? How can pilots improve communication and eliminate language problems causing fatal plane crashes? Airlines have started to combat mitigated speech. They make co-pilots address superiors by first name, teach them to be more assertive and get more comfortable with pushing back. In turn, main pilots try to be less dominant and operate as organizers, negotiators and facilitators, rather than as commanders, thus making it easier for first officers to speak up in order to correct any mistakes caused by the main pilot.”


Don’t get me wrong every plane needs a captain. Every family needs a father. But the great challenge is for the captain (father) is to listen to his co-pilot (mother) because sometimes she is going to have a better idea than he will have. That idea might very well save the families skin if he is humble enough to recognise it and reduce the power distance gap.

Fathers are facilitators as much as leaders.
Airline crews routinely interchange roles, with the Captain giving the First Officer primary control of flying duties, while he takes on a complimentary monitoring and support role. In certain environments and circumstances, this exchange of roles optimises the effectiveness of the crew, thereby mitigating serious potential threats.

Humility, cooperation and mutual support are the keys to a successful outcome here. When these principles are translated into the family context, a mother and father can together ‘co-pilot their crew’ successfully through the storms of life.
Yours for safe-flying families

Warwick Marsh


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