Maintenance safety: a Mayday call

1 min read

The strange disappearance of Flight MH370 has baffled the world. But we can turn to another air disaster for definitive answers on improving our own safety standards.

United Airlines Flight 173 was approaching Portland International Airport when the crew heard an abnormal clunk as they lowered their landing gear. The meticulous captain aborted the landing to investigate further. The flight crew became so obsessed with diagnosing the problem that they failed to monitor fuel levels. The plane crash-landed killing eight passengers. Later investigation found the landing gear had been locked in the correct position the whole time. Fast forward 22 years to a Kent paper mill. Paul Mahoney and his crew valiantly try to clear a machine blockage. The conscientious workers are so fixated with remedying the problem that they don't communicate properly with the switchgear room. The machine powers back up and tears Mahoney's arm off. The air industry, renowned for outstanding safety, learnt its lesson. Flight 173 triggered a Crew Resource Management (CRM) training programme. CRM coached smarter decision making and teamwork through inquiry and advocacy. Accident investigators found the Flight 173 crew had spotted the dwindling fuel gage. However, because of the trappings of traditional hierarchy they'd failed to communicate the danger to their captain. CRM taught crews it's okay to challenge your peers and how to do so in a direct, but unthreatening, way. Let's attend a fictional breakdown with a CRM trained maintenance team. First move, get the bosses' attention. 'Gary, we've got an issue.' Next, state the problem and, instead of pointing the finger, propose a solution. 'I'm worried about our guys accessing that machine on line C with residual power still in the system. How about we shut line C down and open up line D instead?' And the all-important finale, achieve buy in: 'What do you think, Gary?' CRM is one reason why airlines have halved the number of fatal accidents since the Flight 173 crash in 1978. Our own safety record will only soar to the same heights with a similar industry-wide bid to come off autopilot on the issue of maintenance safety.