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 Command Authority
The NTSB blamed the crash on a combination of Alaska Airlines maintenance and insufficient FAA oversight (Alaska Airlines has maintained an impeccable safety record since). The accident report notes the catastrophic failure of a jackscrew was an abnormality for which the crew had no training or experience to assist in their decision-making ef- forts. It would be unfair to blame the crew for their confused response to a befuddling mechanical failure. Still, there are lessons to be learned here.
Within sight of Los Angeles, the captain became stuck in a neverland between the desire to maintain the schedule and the gnawing concern that something very serious was wrong. In the midst of this he briefly abdicated his command authority. His initial decision to execute a precautionary landing at LAX was unambiguous, yet he apparently became persuaded by outside sources to attempt to salvage the flight. It is easy to understand the desire to be a team player and instructive to qualify when that desire should be cast off.
The fact that the captain was concerned enough regarding the aircraft’s handling characteristics to prefer the runway at LAX was a clear indication that a critical state existed. The fact that he had flown for a couple of hours in that condition likely made him reluctant to declare an emergency once he was with Los Angeles controllers, but it was the proper course of action to take. His failure to unequivocally declare
an emergency produced a blasé response from personnel on the ground, and it was this blasé response that ultimately incited the final, deadly decision.
The declaration of an emergency is not an admission of failure. It merely informs air traffic control that an aircraft requires priority handling. It also puts the pilot in a mental state where their focus can shift from the mission (getting to the destination) to executing a safe landing. Lingering uncertainties will collapse, and the focus of all the avail- able resources can be directed towards a safe resolution to the crisis.
A common trait in effective leaders is the ability to be decisive. This is true in nearly any endeavor – flying an airplane, running a business, or raising a family. Command authority does not exist for the sake of hubris: it exists to eliminate useless committee deadlock. Consensus building has its place, but it also has its dangers. Imperfect decisions made decisively almost always produce better results. Per- fection is impossible, chasing after it pointless – particularly when lives are hanging in the balance.
 Stan Dunn is an airline captain and check airman. He has 7,000 hours in turbine powered aircraft, with type ratings in the BE-1900, EMB-120, EMB-145, ERJ-170, and ERJ-190. Stan has been a professional pilot for 14 years, and has been flying for two decades. You can contact Stan at
December 2020 / TWIN & TURBINE • 9

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