If the frightening outburst had occurred in a sudden explosion of craziness, no doubt the copilot would have reacted with a rapid response. But this most certainly wasn’t the case. More than likely, a series of uncomfortable interactions led to the final moment for the copilot to ring the alarm bell. These interactions probably began at the first moment the two pilots made each other’s acquaintance prior to departure.
Although crew pairing is different for different airlines, it is not uncommon for pilots to have never flown together. This may or may not have been the case for JetBlue Flight 191. It doesn’t matter. Crew members have expectations of their fellow professionals.
Operational standardization maintains the expectation that flight crew members will perform their duties consistently regardless of who is occupying a particular seat for that trip. The expectation that the other pilot is competent and safe is a given. And the expectation that the other guy will react to normal and abnormal circumstances as trained is another given. And for the copilot, the expectation that the PIC has attained his or her left seat status because they have met the standards set by the airline and the FAA is a natural assumption. Remember, Capt. Osbon was also a check airman. That status commands a different level of competence and a different level of respect.
With those basic expectations in mind, it had to have been a careful evaluation process for the JetBlue copilot to conclude that his captain had become mentally incapacitated. The icing on the cake probably became the operational erratic behavior that forced him to utilize creativity in order to relieve his boss of command.
Without question, restraint was probably considered by the copilot. The fact that the captain was not a small man may have had an influence on that idea. With or without the cockpit voice recorder transcript, none of us will really know exactly what transpired in that cockpit. Regardless, the appropriate decision was made. The end result was a safe conclusion, albeit a major inconvenience and a major expense for the airline.
So, was this subtle incapacitation or just incapacitation? Honestly, I believe it was both. As an example, almost 25 years ago one of my airline’s copilots landed a DC-10 at Newark Airport with a captain who had suffered a cardiac arrest.
The copilot’s account involved the captain slumping over the control wheel at approximately 50 feet agl. Until that moment, the only indication of problems was an unusual grunt from the captain. It was not until touchdown and the activation of reverse thrust that the copilot took control, eventually taxiing the airplane to the gate from the right seat. With the copilot focused on nonpilot flying duties during the last few seconds prior to landing, the incapacitation went almost unnoticed. Was it subtle, definitive or a combination of both?
Subtle incapacitation has to be the most difficult to evaluate. As a classic example, how long would it take a crew member to react if he observed the other pilot descending through DH without verbal or nonverbal acknowledgement of his action? The evaluation and appropriate course of action has to occur in a matter of seconds. I would like to believe that my colleagues are up to the task.
In that regard, does experience assist in dictating the appropriate response? My answer is yes … but. None of us are specifically trained to recognize all but obvious incapacitation. We have to exercise our best judgment. And the only real method to exercise that judgment is through vigilance by monitoring our fellow professional’s performance on each flight.
I watched my well-respected colleague, Sully Sullenberger, comment on the JetBlue episode via a network TV news channel. One of the issues Capt. Sullenberger mentioned was that this incident reinforces the need for copilots of Part 121 operators to have the equivalent of an ATP certificate or 1,500 hours. This is part of an FAA-proposed rule that has come as a result of the now-famous Colgan Airways crash in Buffalo, New York.
Although I agree in principle with the experience goal, 1,500 hours of flight time would not have assisted the creative decision process that the co-pilot made to relieve his captain. Nor do I believe that a copilot with less flight time would have been incapable or at least lacking in comfortable ability to land the A320 without assistance. As I am sure Capt. Sullenberger would agree, the quality of experience is as important as the quality of the training. This is a topic that deserves more than just a paragraph.
In any case, it is my sincere wish that Capt. Osbon receives help. Charging him with a federal crime of interfering with the duties of flight crew members seems counterproductive. Yes, I understand that the experience was terrifying for the passengers, but prosecuting this man is just a punitive measure. It would make sense if he was of sound mind at the time, but it’s obvious he wasn’t.
I am familiar with the very strict program that assists our alcoholic pilots in recovering from their disease of addiction. Capt. Osbon should be treated in a similar manner. His wife may be the wisest of us all. She stated that there is always another side to the story. I agree.
Let’s not be armchair quarterbacks until all the facts are available … incapacitation or not.