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Bag of Crap

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
General Aviation Human Factors, December, 2007
New Captain Series:   Becoming a Captain | Bag of Crap | The Model Captain | Threat & Error Management Series | CRM Series | Professionalism

Whether you're an Airbus 300 Captain, or the Captain of a Cessna Caravan you've got a bag of crap and everyone is trying to fill it for you.  You see, every day you start out the day with an empty bag.  Its great because the bag is empty, it doesn't weigh anything and things are looking good for a trouble-free day.

Everywhere you go and everyone you talk with over the next few hours before your flight is scheduled to depart will cause that bag to get heavier.  It seems like everything and everyone is against you -- especially when it comes to keeping that bag empty. 

Its 5:02am, the alarm is loud.  You wish you could have 3 more hours of sleep.  Instead you suck it up and deal with it.  That crap will have to go into the bag.  You wake up, get showered and dressed.  You catch the shuttle to the airport and now you're going to tip the driver $1 per bag even though he really didn't do anything.  You think, "Doesn't this guy realize pilots don't make much money?"  If you didn't catch a shuttle, then you drove yourself, burning gasoline up as you speed to the airport.  You think, "Wow, the gas price has gone up again.  I don't need to worry about that, I can stretch this tank until I get back."  More anxiety = more crap that will have to go into the bag.

As you prepare for the flight, you get the flight planning information and realize there's bad weather along the route.  More crap into the bag.  You'd like more fuel for the flight and the dispatcher won't give you what you want.  More crap to go in the bag.  When you get to the airplane, there's a mechanical issue which needs to be handled before the flight.  That bag of crap is getting full.  You're doing the "receiving airplane" checklist and find another problem.  Good thing the mechanics are already coming for the other problem. 

Mechanics arrive and do a minor repair and then MEL the other problem.  Unfortunately that MEL item will cause you a little extra work.  More crap for the bag.  Remember starting the day with the empty bag?  Getting heavy ain't it. It's ok, you're a professional and this is part of the job.  In spite of the 'stuff' filling up the bag, you're not distracted and you're not overloaded.  Yet.

You finally get the mechanic taken care of and the new gate agent is having trouble pulling the jetway away from the airplane.  Are you getting the picture?  Nothing is gonna go easy today especially as your company has traded high cost experienced personnel for lower cost labor.  More crap for the bag.

Phew!  Finally pushback and marshalling.  We're free!  ATC advises you of a ground stop for the NYC airports you are headed towards.  You think, "It can't be, we're not going to NYC but Albany."  It doesn't matter because the airspace for New York Center is just as crowded.  A ten minute delay isn't going to cause too much trouble.

Ten minutes later you're all clear to taxi, its just that you've burned ten minutes of fuel at idle power.  That means less divert fuel, less decision fuel, and fewer options in case you need them.  More crap for the bag.  Take off comes soon enough and that means you're on your way.   The majority of the flight goes well until top of descent.  You guessed it... more crap.

New York Center has given you a vector Northwest bound taking you away from your destination.  You start to surmise that your options are becoming fewer as precious drops of fuel are sprayed into going the wrong way.  Ok well luckily it turns out to be only 20 minutes the wrong way.   Being the Captain is starting to weigh heavily on you as the strap of the crap bag starts digging into your shoulder.  You look over at the First Officer and notice his light and easy attitude.  Good grief he only cares about the task at hand, programming the GPS to accomodate the new route.

You'd like to give the FO some of your crap to deal with.  You're going to use some of those good CRM skills you've got.  While you can't delegate the decisions, you can certainly delegate the workload as you get closer to the destination.  Through delegation, you can create more time for yourself to think.  As you're thinking about the challenges of the approach you face, you get updated weather:  OVC007 BKN014 SCT250 08/07 A29.87 RMK RAE42 (more crap).  It's your leg to fly and you think you're going to take it autopilot all the way down to 500.  Instead of playing "I've got a secret" you use another one of those great CRM tools: think out loud.   As you brief the approach you tell the FO your game plan so there are no surprises and everything is as predictable as possible between you. 

It's a pretty heavy bag that you've been carrying, but the flight is almost over.  "One hundred to minimums, runway in sight," the FO tells you. As you look up to notice the short, wet runway you think, "ahh, crappy landing surface, I'm almost there."   50... 40.... 30... 20...  The 'voice' signals that soon you'll be touching down, turning off, and parking.  Glorious!  A full bag of crap, I'm ready to empty some of it while I prepare for the next flight of the day.

And then it starts again....

Every lump someone tries to put into your bag is a threat to safety.  Each threat erodes the safety margin that we consider critical. Keep reading to understand the call to action and how we're going to protect that critical safety margin.

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