Who's the Smartest One in the Aircraft?

By MAJ. Christian Kennerly, G3, Investigations, Reporting and Tracking, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, Fort Rucker, AlabamaAugust 10, 2022

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jared Thompson, foreground, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot, provides a mission brief to Staff Sgt. Ignacio Lopez, back left, Pfc. Zach Fike, back right, and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andre Lavallee, right, prior to a personnel and equipment movement mission at Bagram Airfield, Parwan province, Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2013. The Soldiers were assigned to Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, Texas and Oklahoma Army National Guard, attached to the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jared Thompson, foreground, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot, provides a mission brief to Staff Sgt. Ignacio Lopez, back left, Pfc. Zach Fike, back right, and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andre Lavallee, right, prior to a personnel and equipment movement mission at Bagram Airfield, Parwan province, Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2013. The Soldiers were assigned to Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, Texas and Oklahoma Army National Guard, attached to the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
(Photo Credit: CPT Peter Smedberg, U.S. Army)
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While the title of this article is tongue-in-cheek, the topic is a serious one that aircrews may not give enough thought. Module 8 (Crew Coordination) in the aircrew training manual, states: “Each crewmember must actively participate in the mission planning process to ensure a common understanding of mission intent and operational sequence.” Honestly, how often do we brief mission details down to the lowest level with each crewmember? Or, does the pilot in command (PC) typically have the most detailed knowledge about the mission and tasks, AKA “the smartest one in the aircraft?”

We place a lot of trust, responsibility and authority with the most experienced aviator in the aircraft. Be it an instructor pilot (IP), maintenance test pilot, air mission commander or PC, they’re expected to make critical, real-time risk assessments and decisions for the aircraft or flight. These subject matter experts also have the mandate to engage the crew to ensure everyone understands the mission. Statistically, poor crew coordination is overrepresented as a factor in aviation mishaps, as are IPs. Can we connect these as a potential hazard?

The following mishaps provide powerful, real-world examples of how the concentration of knowledge in one person in the aircraft contributed to two catastrophic events. The first occurred during a close-range attack and involved an aggressive maneuver, which, although well-known to the unit, required a high degree of understanding and skill. The PC (IP) hastily decided to demonstrate the maneuver to a new (to the aircraft) PI. The maneuver wasn’t discussed other than some brief commentary about how the PI was “not going to like it” because of the severity and abruptness of entry into the steep dive. The PC lowered the nose more than 60 degrees and, during the recovery attempt, the aircraft impacted the ground. Two crewmembers died and the aircraft was destroyed.

The second mishap was a simulated emergency procedure (EP) involving an uncommanded nose-down attitude. The PC (IP) simultaneously used the manual stabilator slew switch while silencing the audio warning to create the simulated EP. After the first iteration, the PI appeared confused as to what he did wrong. The IP initiated a second EP demonstration without explicit guidance on how it would be done differently, causing further confusion and hesitation by the PI. With the stabilator full-down at cruise airspeed, the aircraft lost longitudinal control and impacted the ground. Three crewmembers died and the aircraft was lost.

Both mishaps are tragic examples of only one person, usually the PC, having situational awareness. As a result, the rest of the crew was unable to provide input that could have prevented the catastrophic ending. If you are the smartest one in the aircraft — i.e., the only person who has full understanding of what is supposed to happen — are you rendering your crewmembers’ expertise moot and increasing the risk? What assistance could they provide to ensure the aircraft remains in a safe profile? An experienced, non-rated crewmember in the back of the aircraft is a huge asset, and a mishap is averted when a heads-up crew chief assesses the danger and tells the pilots to knock it off.

Training realism is great, as is simulating combat conditions when appropriate, but crew coordination trumps both. Keep the entire crew informed throughout the mission, and if you change something, conduct a hasty brief in the aircraft. Constantly update each other as a crew to eliminate the centralization of knowledge in one person. Use all of your crewmembers and avoid being the smartest one in the aircraft!