Keeping cool in the cockpit

Airplane cockpit

An airliner engine explodes at 30,000 feet. Shrapnel damages the fuselage and breaks a window. The situation is critical; it demands the pilots’ immediate attention.

CAROL: Ron Kenmir, speaking as a retired Northwest Airlines captain, how did you pilots even begin to deal with a totally unexpected emergency like this one, which recently occurred on a Southwest Airlines flight?

RON: Step 1: Fly the airplane! Many accidents have happened because the crew concentrated on fixing the emergency and forgot to fly the airplane. Step 2: Silence the warning bells. As simplistic as this sounds, back in my day, we were yelling at each other over the ringing bell. Step 3: Read the emergency checklist.

CAROL: The emergency checklist sounds crucial. How important is it?

RON: Very, very important. The Southwest 737 pilots heard a loud bang, their cockpit emergency alarms went off , the flight attendants phoned them saying a passenger was partially sucked out the broken window. Now what are they going to do? They’re suddenly faced with a complex emergency — a lost engine, a depressurized cabin and an injured passenger. The checklist helps assess the situation; it prioritizes their options. It’s one of two main advancements in airline crew training that greatly improve aircraft safety.

CAROL: What’s the second one?

RON: It’s called Crew Resource Management or CRM. It means that pilots take a “real time” simulator “flight” each year in which several diff erent emergency situations are thrown at you, just as if during an actual flight. CRM also teaches you to utilize the many tools at your disposal to contain an emergency, including any you may have overlooked, such as using your cell phone when all communications in the cockpit are lost.

CAROL: OK. But while you’re handling an actual emergency, you’re undergoing a tremendous amount of stress. How do you stay calm and not panic?

RON: You have to keep your cool and look at the entire situation. We pilots all know that panic prevents you from doing this. Also, your own self-preservation kicks in.

CAROL: Doesn’t that stress catch up with you later?

RON: My dad, Willie Kenmir, who also was a Northwest Airlines captain, while flying a four-engine propeller airliner, once lost two thirds of his instruments — instruments needed to land the airplane in Anchorage. Even though Dad was able to correct the problem and landed safely, he woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat at the thought of the crash landing that could’ve happened. Although I never experienced this reaction myself, I believe it often occurs after dealing with an extremely grave, high-stress situation like my Dad’s.

CAROL: Getting back to the emergency checklist, can it be utilized in other professions that require a cool head?

RON: US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, of Miracle on the Hudson fame, is now retired from flying and running his own consulting firm, promoting just this very thing. The idea is to use a checklist — among other aids — to improve safety in highly sensitive professions. I believe surgery is one.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to