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In-flight crisis: Can a pilot say no to any order from ATC?

Carlos Martin, Aeronautical Engineer at MARTINS Airport Engineering & Design articulates his view on who is really in charge of an in-flight crisis…

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After reading Captain Tom Walsh’s  article last month, I acknowledged many things up to the point to highlight something that many people find hard to believe: ‘a pilot can say no to any order from ATC’.

Above all, that is a very good point to stand out that I, too, have had to mention many times during my professional career just to see incredulity in the first place. It is nonetheless something worth to point out for the understanding of any aviation crisis solution: the scopes and chances of any given ‘agent’. As a well known example to mention at this point lies AVIANCA flight 52.

The crew was so undaunted in a difficult and exigent environment such as NYC controllers, that they failed to communicate the great danger they were in. On the contrary, others took the control of the situation with sentences such us the famous ‘we’re going into the Hudson..’. Any of those examples and many others should give a clue of the point that any pilot in command is in air as what in see the captain is and of course he or she ‘can say no’ at any given time… accepting its consequences nevertheless.

However, from saying that the pilot in command is in charge of the plane for its safety to saying that he should be informed at any given time or that he can take any action feeling betrayed by the system there is a huge leap. Let’s begin by trying to answer the headline question for an unlawful act…

Who is really in charge of an in-flight aviation crisis?

As in life, there are processes not commanded by any head but by a protocol for the best of the outcome. We call these processes ‘decentralised control processes’ and are good to design any tactical technique in any given game involving more than one free player. There are many examples of decentralised control processes in nature from the way ants communicate when to stop bringing food, honeybees deciding which new nest to move to, the way termites rebuilt any given damage to their mound or even human body reactions to an infectious disease and so on.

Who is really in charge of an in-flight aviation crisis?

They are much more effective, secure from an attacker… and above all they are quick and tend to be right when full information cannot be provided. As an example we are now using some of these techniques from internet protocols to military tactics… but the also apply to any given game theory situation like an unlawful act threat: nether the pilot, nor the ATC, nor any other should be in complete control of the situation because none of those can have, from a theoretical perspective, full knowledge of what is going on and what actions to take for the best possible outcome… that’s why we call them ‘crisis’, because we just take action in the most effective way we settled beforehand. And this implies that many of the agents might not have the whole information available, nor be able to get it.

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Now let’s go back to the example taken from the JFK to illustrate the past article. There was a threat and the airport activated the common protocol to get the planes to the zulu area. It should be enough for any pilot to have a clue of what is going on when none of those have reported any given damage or will to do so. But later on when one of the pilots starts demanding for information the ATC says: “Can you contact your company? Do they have any information for you?”.

Someone might had already read between lines that she was telling in a soft way to have this information on the other line. He nevertheless omits the suggestion and compromises the process. Another point to focus on is who or when is decided the threat to be ‘ludicrous’. ICAO states are demanded to take any given threat as real until proved to be wrong. At this point lies the case of the 2007 JFK attack plot when alleged that Islamic terrorists were to blow up a system of jet fuel supply tanks and pipelines that feed fuel to JFK. If examined, the case could seem unreliable to any gas and oil engineer, but they were later to be found guilty by the court and measures were taken even in the case that the final purpose of blowing a whole town or even more than a tank could be unreliable. Threats must be taken as real unless proof of the contrary.

One of my favourite movies within aviation industry is ‘The Right Stuff’ from 1979 and even the title gives us a clue of what should be expected from a person in this situation. It is funny how some colleagues say that the pilots from the film were chosen to be the weirdest humans on Earth. If someone is shooting a gun just beside your ears, any normal person behaviour should be covering your ears and running away… anyone but for those whose abnormal reaction is part of the success of the process inside a crisis. I agree that sometimes normal reactions bring sensible outcomes like being able to neglect an order when sure enough to think that everything is going wrong with the process.

Threats must be taken as real unless proof of the contrary.

But when asked if a pilot reaction is praiseworthy when asked to be informed beyond the scope of the protocol I dread to say no. I understand the point of view from the cockpit. They absolutely have the right to say “unable to comply” to any ATC and take any needed action for the best outcome with regard of the information they have. But in terms of and unlawful attack the pilot, I dread to say, has to understand that he is another agent. They, of course, must be trained to cope with this, to anticipate why the airport is reacting in a specific way, but demanding information should not be in the priority list. Most of the communication procedures in this case are taken from military scenarios and even complying with a 7777 squawk just to alert can be disastrous… Most military ATC and pilots would get the message from subtle words inside the conversation and giving a normal procedure to something uncommon is almost always the best technique in this cases for the best of the people on board.

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So I agree to some of the main ideas covered in the article. Risk assessments should take into consideration any given agent with enough knowledge to feed and improve the protocol. They have to bear in mind that any agent is able to say no. But, above all, I dread to to say that in any given crisis the pilot is and should be just another agent and when talking of unlawful acts, information should not compromise the best outcome for the given crisis.

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