Friday, June 30, 2006

My response

Here's my response to Mr Blanik:

"I agree with you in that if any crew member was SURE the Pan Am was on the runway, take off would be aborted. However, the issue of power distance comes into play especially when there is time pressure, a lot of stress and ambiguity.

In KLM's case, Captain Van Zanten was under pressure because of the flight delays. He was sure there was no plane on the runway. Of course, the flight engineer was not SURE and hence he couldn't make a firm statement. Because he wasn't sure, the flight engineer had to keep quiet when he was over-ruled by Van Zanten. But let's say Van Zanten himself had a doubt about whether the Pan Am had cleared the runway. Would he have taken off? Highly unlikely. So the fact that Van Zanten had more power than the flight engineer is significant.

As far as putting another group of people into a flight simulator goes, I would say that what matters is not what happens in the flight simulator. What matters is the mindset of the captain. If a captain has the attitude that he is the boss and hence has more power than the others, he will do what he thinks is right, regardless of the others' opinions. In that sense, putting another group of people in the simulator would have given the same result: the captain would have taken off. That is why I don't blame Van Zanten - I am not a pilot but if I was in Van Zanten's position, I would probably have taken off too.

On the other hand, let's say that captains had to be voted in. I am not talking of voting over an issue at the instant a decision has to be made (such as whether to take-off), but voting for the captain himself. This would not happen in the cockpit, but well before that - ie, when the captain is 'appointed'.

Once a captain/boss knows that subordinates have the power to vote him out, it produces a different mindset - bosses are more likely to listen to their subordinates. If the flight engineer had a doubt, then Van Zanten would probably have treated that doubt more seriously than he did.

This situation is very similar to that of space shuttle Challenger. The shuttle engineers had argued against lift-off, but they didn't have enough data to prove their case. The situation was ambiguous. Their bosses over-ruled them. Again, the bosses were under pressure – several earlier lift-offs had been cancelled and the rocket booster contractors had a billion dollars at stake. In this situation - ambiguity coupled with other pressures, the bosses used their power. The result was tragic.

Hence, in my opinion, power-distance was a significant factor in the KLM/Pan Am disaster. Of course, this factor would not have come into play at all, if the various other factors (bomb scare at the airport, fog, heterodyne etc) hadn't occurred in the first place. "

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