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ARE PILOTS STRONG ENOUGH TO DO THEIR JOB?

A review on a Wall Street Journal Article regarding pilots' physical strength. 

By: Aubrey Warrick

Not too long ago, The Wall Street Journal released an article discussing Boeing’s Latest 737 MAX Concern: Pilots’ Physical Strength. This article created massive buzz on various Aviation Feeds across Social Media Platforms. After scouring through the sarcasm and quick-witted remarks, (from both genders), some of the commentary was actually useful and made solid arguments against recent media coverage asking the question: Are pilots strong enough to do their job?

In referencing the article put out by The Wall Street Journal, their opening paragraph expresses concern about whether the "average pilot" has enough strength to manually exert forces necessary to override the MAX-8's mechanical flaw. The true uproar within our Aviation Community has come from this contradicting paragraph within the same article:

 

"Turning the crank to adjust the horizontal stabilizer can help change the angle of the plane’s nose. Under certain conditions, including at unusually high speeds with the panel already at a steep angle, moving the crank can take a lot of force. Among other things, the people familiar with the details said, regulators are concerned about whether female aviators—who typically have less upper-body strength than their male counterparts—may find it difficult to turn the crank in an emergency."

 

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The article goes on to express that both Boeing and the FAA leaders are worried that if this sort of topic becomes public knowledge, it would be "overblown and sensationalized". Guess what? WSJ, you did it! congrats! So lets get down to the real discussion now that you are nice and warmed up on the matter. Are pilots strong enough to do their job? The face of this concern isn't "female pilots with less upper body strength than male pilots", the concern is; "is the pilot in the front of the plane you are flying on, private, charter, or commercial, capable of handling the equipment that company chose to fly?

 

Lets start from the flight deck and work our way back. according to airliners.net, between all commercial and military planes (but not light aircraft) claims there to be around 39,000 different types of planes in the world. Thats 39,000 different designs, multiple distinct training programs, and ever-changing rules and regulations to operate these aircraft safely by pilots. What is the definition of an "average pilot?" I can't find one! I can show you the stats from ALPA.org which references only airline pilots in the U.S. and Canada, to give you a general idea of male vs. female pilot percentages and age-ranges:

 

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Ok, so its safe to say, theres a sliver of a percentage of female pilots within the ALPA parameters. With that being said, we can analyze with common sense from this info to create our own stats on what an "average pilot" is to a degree: Male, age 50-60, passenger pilot, First Officer. Just with these stats, the concern from the WSJ article is isolating 5.56% of the "average pilot" population to be in question of being fit enough to operate the flight controls of the MAX-8.

 

Most cases, the findings of aviation accidents and incidents are the result of pilot error. The MAX-8 accidents were due to design flaw. Now lets move back from the flight deck and talk about latent failures with the James Reason Swiss Cheese Model. I use to teach this for In-House Training for a 131/121/125 operation:

 

-Reason compares Human Systems to Layers of Swiss Cheese

-Each layer is a defense against something going wrong (mistakes & failure).

-There are ‘holes’ in the defense – no human system is perfect (we aren’t machines).

-Something breaking through a hole isn’t a huge problem – things go wrong occasionally.

-As humans we have developed to cope with minor failures/mistakes as a routine part of life (something small goes wrong, we fix it and move on).

-Within our ‘systems’ there are often several ‘layers of defense’ (more slices of Swiss Cheese).You can see where this is going…..

-Things become a major problem when failures follow a path through all of the holes in the Swiss Cheese.

-All of the defense layers have been broken because the holes have ‘lined up’.

 

The above image and bullet points, along with more information on The Swiss Cheese Model can be found here.

 

Ok, sorry for the schooling this is all important I promise! Now lets clear up what our "Swiss cheese pieces" of this "Pilot Strength" puzzle are; defenses (or cheese slices) being: design, training and regulation, the holes being the flaws. There are flaws in design, there are flaws in training and there are flaws in regulations for ALL aircraft. The strength of a pilot is measured during their initial training session (check-rides, company check-out procedures, etc.), and do so every 6-12 months for as long as they are on that equipment. Companies that engineer these flying machines have numerous checks and balances before their equipment is released to the public as well. Rules and regulations are constantly changing to support the number one goal of ALL things aviation: SAFETY.

 

Pilot strength, male, female, white, black or blue, is measured through a direct relationship between technology and training, and not about the difference between views from inside the industry and reactions from outside. Yes your pilot is strong enough to fly their equipment. Yes there is such thing as pilot error, yes there are flaws in all designs of every inch that goes into creating an aircraft.

 

in regards to the WSJ article, a fellow aviator put it perfectly: It's nearly impossible to design an interface or object that can be used by 100% of the human population, which is why the industry standard is to design for the 95th percentile of users. Making this a design problem, not a problem with over weight, underweight, weak, strong, male or female pilots.

 

(Sorry to poke holes in your theory Wall Street Journal). Its not a pilot strength issue. its bringing all of the pieces together, stop pointing fingers, and start focusing on honing our individual crafts (pilots, engineers, reg makers etc.) and coming together with a larger version of Crew Resource Management to produce the maximum result we all want: S.A.F.E.T.Y.