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Briefings are an essential part of every multi-crew flight. Done effectively, they can substantially enhance safety of flight by providing an opportunity to gather and disseminate the operational data that is germane to the pending flight. An efficacious briefing can also help fashion elements of both leadership and team building.
Unfortunately, many operators continue to utilise a decades-old briefing methodology that has neither been adapted to suit a typical, modern flight deck nor has it been modified to incorporate the changes in our collective understanding of human cognition. The typical standard operating procedure (SOP) briefing is often too long and, more often than not, is a directed, one-sided dissertation from the pilot flying (PF) that lacks meaningful involvement from the crewmember that will play a pivotal role in maintaining appropriate safety margins, the pilot monitoring (PM).
The CFIT crash, during a non-precision approach, of an Airbus 300-600 freighter in Birmingham, Alabama in August, 2013, led to the NTSB conclusion that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error, specifically “the flight crew’s continuation of an un-stabilized approach and their failure to monitor the aircraft’s altitude during the approach”. The cockpit voice recorder from that crash confirmed that an SOP appropriate briefing had been conducted and that all of the required items had been covered. However, it also revealed that there had been no discussion or consideration given to the "threats" specific to the seldom performed, non-precision approach to a short, poorly lit runway, that the crew had elected to conduct. Discussion of those threats and consideration of the corresponding mitigations might well have changed the outcome of the event.
In the face of the NTSB findings, Alaska Airlines took it upon themselves to review their own arrival and departure briefings and found that their standard briefing procedures also failed to consider the threats and were equally inadequate. An examination of Company safety data (Line Operations Safety Audit (LOSA), Flight Data Monitoring (FDM), etc) revealed a clear connection between the errors and undesired aircraft states (UAS) encountered, and the briefings that had preceded them. It became apparent that the content of their Company directed SOP briefing format was not focused on what the flight crews actually needed to discuss in order to enhance safety.
Finding A Better Way
The safety team at Alaskan Airlines was not only determined to address the deficiencies found in their briefing methodology, but to also incorporate the most current cognitive theories on decision making. After a year of research and development, they identified four specific goals or objectives upon which to base their briefings. These included:
- Threat forward - the law of primacy demonstrates that information presented first is better retained. Therefore, departure and arrival briefings should first address the relevant threats and then go on to discuss specific mitigation strategies that could be employed should any of those threats degrade safety margins
- Interactive - the briefing should not be a dissertation from the pilot flying. Its design should encourage interaction between the PF and PM with the mindset that the PM also plays a leadership role in developing the critical content of the briefing
- Scalable - no two departures or arrivals are exactly the same. It follows that the preceding briefings should also not be exactly the same. Crew briefings should be scalable to the event, covering what is important based on proficiency, familiarity and flight complexity
- Cognitive - the principle of recency shows that information presented last is also well retained. Consequently, briefings should conclude with a recap of the critical threats, the associated countermeasures and any PM duties specific to the particular departure or arrival profile
A Better Briefing Strategy
Based on the objectives, the Alaska Airlines team devised a new approach to their cockpit preparation and briefing format. The process starts with cockpit setup. This is intended as a very deliberate process by which both pilots independently ensure that all elements of the pre-departure or pre-arrival preparation are complete and that the aircraft and crew are ready for the phase of flight. Items considered as part of this process include review of weather, NOTAM information, aircraft performance calculations, ATIS review, systems checks, cockpit and navigational guidance setup, FMS and EFB programming and the myriad of other tasks required to prepare for the event. Once both pilots have completed their respective setup tasks, the Threats-Plan-Considerations (TPC) format briefing is conducted.
The TPC process begins with the PF asking the PM to review any threats that are relevant to the profile about to be flown. Doing so immediately engages the PM in an active safety role as, once identified, countermeasures for each of the identified threats must be determined and discussed. On a complex or high risk (high threat) departure or approach, this discussion might well be the most time consuming portion of the briefing. Once the threats discussion has been completed, the PF will outline his plan for executing the intended arrival or departure.
The plan need not necessarily be a lengthy dissertation. That is, it should be scalable to take into consideration crew proficiency, familiarity with the approach or departure, weather conditions and procedural complexity. As a consequence, a VMC arrival at a familiar aerodrome does not need to be briefed in the same detail as a night or IMC arrival at an unfamiliar field.
The TPC briefing concludes with the "considerations" portion of the briefing. This aspect of the briefing process is intended to be a summary of the discussion that has already taken place. It is particularly important in the context of a high risk or high complexity arrival or departure procedure. The considerations portion of the briefing should include a review of any specific PM duties, or actions to be taken, in the event that relevant threats require the agreed-upon countermeasure(s) to be actioned.
The Briefing Card
To aid their crews in conducting the TPC briefing, Alaska Airlines developed a quick reference card that includes a summary of the briefing format, a tool for conducting debriefs, and a list of common threats. Other operators, that have adopted the TPC briefing methodology, have chosen to develop their own, similar cards. An example of a TPC briefing card is illustrated below.
Briefings are an essential part of every flight. An effective briefing methodology which engages both pilots, identifies the threats, determines appropriate mitigation strategies, and outlines the plan of action, can greatly enhance safety of flight.
Accidents and Incidents
B789, London Gatwick UK, 2018 'On 28 March 2018, a Boeing 787-9 crew inadvertently commenced takeoff from the displaced threshold of the departure runway at Gatwick instead of the full length which was required for the rated thrust used. The Investigation found that the runway involved was a secondary one which the crew were unfamiliar with and to which access was gained by continuing along a taxiway which followed its extended centreline. It was noted that at least four other similar incidents had occurred during the previous six months and that various risk reduction actions had since been taken by the airport operator / ANSP'
Flight Safety Foundation
- Rethinking the Briefing - AeroSafety World July-August 2017
Royal Aeronautical Society