Flying clear of the grey areas © Duncan Graham 2009
Viewers of the addictive National Geographic TV program Air Crash Investigation know all about flight crew confusion as systems malfunction, alarms wail, dials spin like propellers and the plane turns turtle.
Cockpit chaos has a fancy academic label – crew resource management, and it’s a key topic in pilot training according to student Cendra Perkasa.
“Team building is extremely important, particularly with multi-national, multi-cultural aircraft crews,” he said.
“In the commercial pilot licence course I’m undertaking this is a major issue. We must know each other’s weaknesses and strengths and can use these in an emergency.”
Cendra, 21, is a final year student at New Zealand’s Massey University School of Aviation, and the son of Air Vice Marshall Eris Herryanto, the director general for defence facilities in the Indonesian Defence Department. He’s the man who buys the republic’s armaments.
When Cendra graduates with a multi-engine aircraft licence at the end of this year he hopes to become a Garuda pilot.
Problems faced by aircrew aren’t confined to staying up-to-date with mechanical and procedural changes, remaining physically fit and mentally alert, and living a stress-free lifestyle.
There are also cultural issues that have sometimes featured in crash post-mortems where junior staff have feared contradicting the captain when they see the boss’s errors. Better to nose dive into the ocean than insult the status of a senior by gently suggesting the plane levels out.
“The Massey instructors know about the problems with some cultures, particularly Asian, where young people are not supposed to question or challenge their superiors,” Cendra said.
“The junior crew must have the confidence to alert the captain to any errors and the captain must listen to what they are saying. Anyone can make a mistake.
“There has to be harmony and honesty. This is professionalism, acting as a team. I don’t know that this always happens in Indonesia where observance of the rules is sometimes a bit greyish.
“When I get back to Indonesia maybe I can start changing things a bit.”
It would be easy to flick aside his comments as naive, the mouthings of a lad barely out of his teenage years and who would hardly know which way is up. But while his little friends were pushing toy trains across their bedroom floors Cendra was at 10,000 feet getting intimate with ailerons, flaps and stabilisers. He’s been in and around aircraft since he was a toddler, taken into the cockpits of the F 16 fighter jets his dad flew during his long air force career.
“When I was a child I always wanted to fly,” he said. “I wanted to join the air force but eyesight tests showed I was one per cent minus.
“I’ve since had corrective laser surgery, but by then it was too late to enter the military so I decided to become a commercial pilot. In any case there aren’t too many planes in the Indonesian Air Force so opportunities are limited.
“I chose Massey because the training is so thorough and great emphasis is placed on safety and problem solving. NZ is really good for aviation; everything is done well, from forecasts to friendly air traffic controllers.
“In Indonesia there’s a bit of an attitude of: ‘Problems? Ah, well, no worries.’ Pilot training isn’t just about rudder and stick – it’s also about good management and developing decision making skills. These include caring for the passengers.”
All fliers will know what he means. We slyly watch the crew stride through the departure lounge, dragging black boxes stuffed with manuals and forecasts. Do they look neat and efficient, capable and cautious?
One stagger or alcoholic belch and every passenger would race back to the check-in to demand another flight. We want these men and women to keep us aloft, and we also expect them to have gravitas.
It’s the same with the in-flight announcements. The voice must be friendly, but authoritative, no slurred speech or nervous hesitancy. If the captain sounds unhappy, what’s he doing holding the joystick?
On all these simplistic and subjective measurements the fearless Cendra comes across as a levelheaded lad with The Right Stuff, at home in a profession where youths with maturity are kings of the sky.
Add a moustache and his image would be right for the life-size cardboard cut-outs travel agents employ to persuade querulous customers to open their wallets, take to the stratosphere and trust their destiny to someone they’ve never known.
“It is also important to be clear and fluent in English (the language used in international aviation) to communicate with air traffic control staff,” Cendra said.
“I had to pass level 6.5 in the International English Language Testing System to get entry into this course, and all training is in English.”
His instructor said Cendra was a good student who would have no problems. “He’ll go far,” he said, and although this is the standard pilot’s joke the prediction should literally and metaphorically come to pass.
The young Indonesian chose a degree course so that he’ll have the right academic qualifications to enter airline management when his flying days are over.
Cendra could have studied in Jakarta at a far lower cost, but believed the Massey course has high credibility in Indonesia where Garuda has employed its graduates, including Pudji Susanto who was the standout academic graduate in 1995.
The Aviation School attracts students from around the world giving trainee pilots insights into other cultures. International commercial pilots with the right aircraft certification have a global work ticket and are not confined to their country’s flag carrier.
The three-year degree course is expensive at $NZ 140,000 (Rp 840 million) plus at least $NZ 1,000 (Rp 6 million) a month living costs.
The school uses a civil aviation airport at Palmerston North in the lower North Island of NZ, a location that gets lashed with heavy winds and rain.
“This is a problem,” said Cendra, “but it gives us the ability to handle take-offs and landings in difficult conditions.
“I love flying. When I’m in the air I feel free. On the ground I don’t have the same freedom. It makes me happy.”
Which should put passengers at ease. If the pilot feels good, then let’s stop sweating and just follow the calming instructions to ‘sit back, relax and enjoy the flight’. Provided, of course, the in-flight entertainment isn’t showing Air Crash Investigation.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Wednesday 27 May 2009)