Crash of Air France 447: What Pilots and Law Firm Professionals Can Learn

The moment was unforgettable in aviation history. No mayday call, no eyewitness, not even a slight radar trace of the Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro-Galeão (GIG) to Paris-Roissy (CDG) was found on June 1, 2009.

After extensive search efforts, finally, wreckage from the flight was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean where the airliner crashed that fateful night.

Two years later, Popular Mechanics published a synopsis of the event, titled “What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447.”

In it, author Jeff Wise states, “Neither weather nor malfunction doomed AF447, nor a complex chain of error, but a simple but persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots. Human judgments, of course, are never made in a vacuum. Pilots are part of a complex system that can either increase or reduce the probability that they will make a mistake.”

Pilots, physicians, even law firm professionals are all part of a complex system that demands cooperation to be successful.

Each could benefit from reading the following excerpt from the Popular Mechanics article:

02:11:21 (Robert) On a pourtant les moteurs! Qu’est-ce qui se passe bordel? Je ne comprends pas ce que se passe.
We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.

Unlike the control yokes of a Boeing jetliner, the side sticks on an Airbus are “asynchronous”—that is, they move independently. “If the person in the right seat is pulling back on the joystick, the person in the left seat doesn’t feel it,” says Dr. David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Their stick doesn’t move just because the other one does, unlike the old-fashioned mechanical systems like you find in small planes, where if you turn one, the [other] one turns the same way.” Robert has no idea that, despite their conversation about descending, Bonin has continued to pull back on the side stick.

The men are utterly failing to engage in an important process known as crew resource management, or CRM. They are failing, essentially, to cooperate. It is not clear to either one of them who is responsible for what, and who is doing what. This is a natural result of having two co-pilots flying the plane. “When you have a captain and a first officer in the cockpit, it’s clear who’s in charge,” Nutter explains. “The captain has command authority. He’s legally responsible for the safety of the flight. When you put two first officers up front, it changes things. You don’t have the sort of traditional discipline imposed on the flight deck when you have a captain.”

The vertical speed toward the ocean accelerates. If Bonin were to let go of the controls, the nose would fall and the plane would regain forward speed. But because he is holding the stick all the way back, the nose remains high and the plane has barely enough forward speed for the controls to be effective. As turbulence continues to buffet the plane, it is nearly impossible to keep the wings level.

02:11:32 (Bonin) Putain, j’ai plus le contrôle de l’avion, là! J’ai plus le contrôle de l’avion!
Damn it, I don’t have control of the plane, I don’t have control of the plane at all!

02:11:37 (Robert) Commandes à gauche!
Left seat taking control!

At last, the more senior of the pilots (and the one who seems to have a somewhat better grasp of the situation) now takes control of the airplane. Unfortunately, he, too, seems unaware of the fact that the plane is now stalled, and pulls back on the stick as well. Although the plane’s nose is pitched up, it is descending at a 40-degree angle. The stall warning continues to sound. At any rate, Bonin soon after takes back the controls.   A minute and a half after the crisis began, the captain returns to the cockpit. The stall warning continues to blare.

We now know what became of the international flight, but are the lessons learned from it being promulgated around the world?

Stewart Baker, author of the Volokh Conspiracy, likens this disaster to cyberwar, writing “Once we lose faith in computer systems, especially in an emergency, all of us are likely to ask, ‘What instruments are reliable, and which can’t be trusted? What’s the most pressing threat? What’s going on?’”

In a similar way, the Air France crash can provide lessons learned for law firm managers, who are responsible for adequately training associates, assessing any weakness within the team, and appropriating the tools necessary to win a case.

On the Airbus plane, controls are “asynchronous”, where movement from one co-pilot cannot be felt by the second. Much the same way, law firm professionals operate independently. Often, one member of the team assigns a research task to their paralegal, not knowing the same task was given to a first-year associate by another attorney.

Keep your lawyers from working asynchronously by implementing a system that requires each case member to report their project assignments back to a single team leader. Allow only one person to assign tasks. Distribute a project list once a week so that the right hand always knows what the left is doing.

Next, adopt the aviation industry’s crew resource management (CRM) system. Attorneys assigned to the same case should understand their position within the team hierarchy and functional model.

Give each associate a specific subject and definable portion of the case—i.e., in a divorce, one associate should compile discoverable research on the wife, another on the husband, a third on legal precedent, and a fourth works on assets and money matters.

Finally, don’t let complex technology eliminate common sense. It’s important to trust your instruments—case management software, e-documents, and electronic bates systems—but it is equally important to trust your instincts.

Law firm managers should take the Air France crash as one more reason to increase on-the-job training. Associates should be taught not to implicitly trust technology.

Attorneys should not get into the routine of relying on a fail-safe for their actions—a person who always proofreads their work or double-checks filing deadlines.

When disaster strikes, attorneys need to talk with one another, cooperate, develop a creative solution to the issue at hand, or—in the worst-case scenario—simply tap into education and common sense.

-WB

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