There was a time when major aircraft accidents were, unfortunately, much more common than they are today. Investigators and regulators tended toward an approach that some call “find, fix, and fly:” find the cause (often a mechanical failure), fix the problem (improve the machinery), and fly the airplane (resume normal operations). The cycle would start anew with the next accident.
With continuously improving technology, the number of accidents attributed primarily to mechanical failure decreased over the years. Having thus plucked the proverbial low-hanging fruit, investigators, regulators, and researchers turned their attention to finding fixes for the flyers – in other words, to reducing human error as a primary or contributing cause to aviation accidents and incidents. In a paper called The Evolution of Crew Resource Management Training in Commercial Aviation, University of Texas at Austin researchers Robert Helmreich, Ashleigh Merritt, and John Wilhelm trace the evolution of error management efforts through the five generations summarized below. Though error management efforts were initially directed to part 121 air carriers, general aviation (GA) operators – pilots, instructors, mechanics – can clearly learn and benefit from these concepts.
Until 1981, when a major part 121 air carrier pioneered the concept and practice of cockpit resource management (CRM) training, aviation was still mired in the “captain-is-god” culture that the fledgling aviation industry had adopted from the mores of nineteenth century mariners. Driven in part by NTSB findings on the dangers of captains’ authoritarian attitudes and co-pilots’ lack of assertiveness, early CRM incorporated training on individual styles, and effective leadership and management techniques.
By the late 1980s, most U.S., and many international airlines had adopted and implemented CRM training for flight deck crews. As these programs gained acceptance as an ongoing component in flight crew training and line operations, airlines began to recognize the need to include cabin crew members. The name changed from cockpit resource management to crew resource management, and the programs evolved from a focus on management to one on team concepts and overall situational awareness.
The nature and scope of CRM continued to expand in the 1990s, with a new focus on the influence of organizational culture and human factors, including those arising from the increasing use of automation. Air carriers also began to develop CRM programs for check airmen, training personnel, maintenance workers, and dispatchers.
The introduction of the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) in the early 1990s marks another stage in the evolution of error management. Under AQP, a voluntary program, the FAA allows air carriers to develop training programs specific to their individual needs and operations. A condition for AQP authorization is the requirement to have a CRM program that is integrated into technical training. To accomplish this objective, air carriers began to “proceduralize” CRM by incorporating desired behaviors into operational procedures and checklists.
As described in the Helmreich paper, “fifth generation CRM” marks a shift from the human resource and team management focus back to error management, which was the stimulus for CRM’s initial development. In this iteration, sometimes called “Threat and Error Management” (TEM), there is an explicit recognition that, since human error is inevitable, the focus must be on managing and mitigating the impact of those errors we cannot avoid. (FAA Safety Briefing MarApr 2013