Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, divorce or anxiety, managing “human factors” is front and center at United’s Flight Training Center in Denver.
DENVER — In January, new captains and co-pilots patiently waited for their names to be called at a “ceremony of the wings” at United Airlines’ Flight Training Center in Denver.
The pilots in the room will have, and in some cases will continue to bear, the greatest responsibility for ensuring that passengers get from point A to point B safely.
But first, they got a chance to hear from a man whose job it is to make sure pilots are not only skillfully ready, but also mentally ready.
“But I want to help you deliver on your promise in this cockpit, to your crew and to this community aft that you sign for and have taken responsibility for,” Rob Strickland told new hires.
Strickland, a former boxer and Air Force Academy graduate, is now the senior director of human factors and pilot development.
The position, which he has held since 2014, deals with how a pilot interacts with his environment and how to be effective in an environment that can be affected by events that occur in and out of the cockpit.
Sometimes these factors can be something that happens in a pilot’s personal life.
“If you ever walk out of the airport, you see what some call a ‘mass of humanity’, people just trying to get from one place to another. The important thing is humanity. This are humans – and pilots are humans too,” Strickland said in an April interview.
As required by the airline, United pilots travel to its flight training center in Denver to ensure their performance meets airline standards regardless of the aircraft they fly.
The center has bays with several flight simulators.
“Although the FAA says if you can fly one of these, you can fly the actual plane, what’s missing are the two hundred people in the back and the responsibility for their lives,” he said. said Strickland.
This is the human factor that Strickland has endeavored to implement in the airline’s training, which includes the development of a briefing between crew members and the list of “threats” that may exist before theft, including personal threats.
“Anything that can lead to you bringing a less than excellent version of yourself to the cockpit. We need to talk about it because we may not be perfect individually, but collectively, you know, as a crew , we want to be perfect. We can never be less than excellent,” he said.
Some of the training is borrowed from the Navy SEALs, which includes techniques meant to be implemented in a stressful situation, including different breathing techniques.
Since every United Airlines pilot must go through the Flight Training Center every nine months, Strickland says there is a unique opportunity to identify pilots who may be struggling.
“Once in a while, if their performance is lower than what we’re used to seeing, it stimulates a conversation. And usually that’s when we find out that they may have had a death in the family or they’re going through something – a divorce or something that’s impacting their overall stress level,” he said.
Sometimes these issues can include removing a pilot from a flight schedule or a trainee out of training, to receive the support needed to get through anything that could cause the high stress.
“We’re spending time with this driver on a one-on-one basis to make sure he has the mental toughness, courage and resilience to bounce back from maybe a mistake he made or something that happened in his life he needed to deal with before we felt mutually comfortable that they were going to be able to go out,” he said. “And once those are locked down, we bring them back to training and carry on. Sometimes their chief pilot may take them off the flight schedule to allow them to deal with some of those personal issues as well. We do whatever it takes. We treat the driver as a person as much as a professional.”
Strickland explained that the team consults with doctors and therapists, and there are also established relationships with the types of agencies they go to when their expertise on management factors in the cockpit exceeds their ability to s train.
“We all know that stress is cumulative. So when you bring these things to practice or you bring them to the cockpit and something else happens, you may not be able to perform at your peak performance. So we identify those things. And then my team will refer, if necessary, to the Air Line Pilots Association, for example, to our United Medical Department or whatever is appropriate to intervene, “he said. Explain.
In one instance, Strickland shared a story of how he worked with a new hire driver who was “absolutely the type of person” they wanted to work for United.
“And he had some anxiety going into his test. And he was really, really super excited to be here and put a little more pressure on himself,” he recalled. “So we stepped in, provided resilience training, gave him tools to identify those stressors and provided him with ways to deal with them so he could be effective under pressure. And I recently received an email from him saying ‘I was successful with the checkride, and I’m ready to fly the jet.'”
The program, Strickland says, provided a shift in creating what they call “psychological safety.”
“To make our drivers feel comfortable raising their hands and saying, ‘You know what, I don’t think I can give my best.
Overall, it’s a very small percentage of the estimated 13,000 pilots who must engage with the Strickland team, but it’s a significant percentage because the responsibility of keeping people safe while flying depends on it.
“So if that happens, we want to make sure we’re ready to provide the exact response they need to get out there and fly the jet,” he said.
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