Gorilla in the Room (or, The Pilot Error Series Character Arc)

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silverback_gorilla_for_postimage credit: zeeky.net

In case you were wondering, this is a post about writing. To discover the significance of the image, please read on.

John Truby’s Anatomy of Story stresses the importance of defining the hero in terms of a process that begins at the end of a story with what he calls the “self-revelation,” in which the hero “. . . strips away the facade he has lived behind and sees himself honestly for the first time. It is what he learns, what he gains, what allows him to live a better life in the future.” That lesson is the lighthouse in the fog toward which every decision in structuring the novel must be directed.

In a stand-alone novel that is not part of a series, this revelation has no life beyond the last page. The character arc is completely contained within one story.

But in a series involving the same hero, the author can’t very well recycle the same revelation without regressing the character to a previous state at the start of each novel and show another set of circumstances in which the hero learns the same life lesson again.

This limitation as reflected in a hero who doesn’t change from one novel to the next is one of the primary reasons many readers don’t care for genre fiction like mysteries and thrillers. And at the opposite end of the scale, it’s exactly the reason fans of genre fiction love it. They want to see the same hero doing his thing in different circumstances, facing new challenges, but always with the heroic nature they’ve grown to appreciate. It’s the stability of predictive behavior that keeps them coming back.

Early in the process of conceptualizing this series, I decided to create a hero who didn’t fit the mold typical of genre mystery/thrillers. As outlining the third novel in the series gets underway, however, I’m uncertain as to the viability of that approach, and the purpose of this document is to brainstorm the possibility of creating a continuing character arc that meets my original objective for the hero, and to answer the question of whether I think this objective is sustainable or needs to be abandoned prior to beginning the third novel or later in the series.

For Pilot Error, I created the character of Nick Phillips in the Truby tradition after the fact. I had spent days outlining the story based on what I considered to be a strong knowledge base regarding the structure of modern fiction, and wrote the first draft in about a month. During the revision process, I attended a Truby workshop that I’ve since recognized as crucial to creating a story I think works on many more levels than it would have without the application of Truby’s methods.

To accomplish this, I backfilled Truby’s method with the novel I’d already written. The process identified no less than 10 specific flaws I subsequently addressed in later drafts. Here’s a narrative summary of what the core seven steps Truby recommends meant to the characterization of Nick Phillips.

Nick’s pilot-father died in a plane crash determined to be the result of pilot error when Nick was about seven years old. Initially, he refused to accept that his hero made the mistake that killed him. But as time passed, Nick began to question his reluctance, and this internal conflict became manifested in a dichotomy:

I don’t believe Dad committed pilot error, but the legacy of abandonment I grew up with based on that official conclusion is so bitter that I’m going to dedicate my professional life as an aviation accident investigator to two objectives: 1) Resist the tendency of the NTSB to blame the pilot, especially when he’s dead, and 2) Dedicate my efforts to enhancing flight safety as best I can and prevent any pilot-father from leaving his son alone in this world without a dad.

As the novel opens, Nick is still haunted by this “ghost from his past,” and it’s a weakness that makes his life less than it can be as reflected in two needs.

His psychological need is defined as something that hurts only himself, he’s aware of it, and for whatever reason or reasons he refuses to deal with it: To get over the death of his father by accepting what he can’t prove isn’t true and forgiving his hero for making a mistake in the airplane.

His moral need does hurt others, but Nick isn’t aware of it: He thinks that as a husband and father first and an accident investigator second, he gives his family the best part of himself. But the reality is just the opposite, and his family has had to accept that his professional dedication takes precedence over them.

Into this status quo (ordinary world) at the beginning of the novel arrives an inciting event that triggers in Nick a legendary tenacity for uncovering the truth behind air crashes. And it’s this reputation for digging deep that motivates his boss to remove Nick from a team that will investigate the death of a controversial political figure who has publicly stated he will not go down alone, a less-than-veiled threat directed at the occupant of the Oval Office.

The story puts Nick in direct conflict with a number of opponents, the most dangerous of which is a stone-cold special ops assassin. I’d planned a series, so Nick wins the physical battle at the end, but the underlying, core lesson he learns is far more important from the perspective of his character in the series.

His career in the NTSB is over. Initially, before the Truby workshop, I wrote the ending to show Nick arriving home with a new goal at the forefront, that of trying his best to make up for lost time with his family. Maybe it should have been obvious, but I failed to recognize that this ending falls short as being an effective self-revelation, because the absence of choice doesn’t teach Nick anything.

So I revised it to show Nick being offered the opportunity to continue with the NTSB. His initial reaction is unqualified acceptance of his old position and the potential for advancement to the top slot in the Aviation Division, immediately followed by the critical self-revelation that combines both his psychological and moral needs at the beginning of the novel.

Newfound dedication to family comes first, and Nick has finally forgiven his father with the commitment to reconnect with his own son as best he can.

Red Line begins about a year later in story time, and what seems like an eternity in real time. The reason? I had the Truby model firmly in hand when I outlined the structure, and in retrospect the effort gave me a false starting position epitomized by, “The second novel should be easier.”

Without trying to detail all the reasons, I’ll concentrate on a core issue born within the initial seed of an idea that spawned the series: Can I develop a character who starts out as an official aviation accident investigator, but as a result of events in the first novel ends up as a private crash investigator who solves a series of cases involving airborne murder?

Essential factoid: NTSB employees are prohibited from investigating criminal wrongdoing. If they find anything to suggest sabotage, they must inform the FBI, who assumes lead status and the NTSB works for them.

This real-world limitation played a key role in Pilot Error. Nick’s dedication to uncovering the truth, suspicion that a cover-up was in the works, and belief that the FBI could be recruited into toeing the party line as directed from the Oval Office, compelled him to adopt a rogue, private agenda in which he initiated a criminal investigation under the guise of doing his official job as an NTSB employee.

Truby’s method emphasizes the crucial role of what he calls “immoral acts” committed by villains and heroes during the course of a story. Nick is responsible for more than a few in Pilot Error, but I think readers generally forgive him because his objective is justice for those whose lives were taken as a result of unbridled power and the corruption that always follows in its wake.

At the beginning of Red Line, Nick has no intention of investigating anything. My initial task was to accomplish the Truby analysis of the story, which I did with less than adequate thought because I suffered under the illusion of knowing how to do it well enough to avoid the pitfalls of not doing it at all. Again, those issues aren’t the specific topic of this analysis, but after solving them and finishing the novel, I’m once again faced with the task of transitioning to the next story, and I can’t afford the time to stumble around in the dark.

That means dealing with a sticky issue that relates directly to character arc and how to incorporate what might be termed character-arc throughput.

As the third novel Test Flight begins, Nick has conducted two aviation-crash murder investigations within the past two years. The first was official-cum-unofficial (rogue and illegal), the second totally unofficial, but with some stretching of legal boundaries as is typical of private investigators in fiction (and in reality as well?).

The core dilemma going forward for Nick (and his alter-ego creator) began in the latter half of Pilot Error and continued throughout Red Line. In the absence of evidence that provides the NTSB with justification to call in the FBI, once the on-scene investigation is closed, it can never be reopened to prove criminal wrongdoing. The most significant obstacle, with no way to overcome it, is the total breakdown of the chain of evidence once the NTSB releases control of the wreckage to the insurance company or the registered owner of the aircraft.

Enter the 500-pound gorilla in the room: Nick proves to himself that sabotage led to a fatal airplane crash, and yet he can’t seek legal redress for the victims. Is he going to walk away from that? I don’t know about your version of Nick Phillips, but mine won’t accept a figurative, much less literal, thumbing of a killer’s nose in his face.

Enter the 1000-pound gorilla in the room: Nick takes the law into his own hands. Will readers accept that?

One solution might be available in the world of the Pilot Error series, and it begins with the classic question at the heart of all fiction: What if Nick Phillips becomes a Special Investigator, whose official badge-and-gun charter is to provide liaison between the NTSB and the FBI?

Or is that too easy?

And so, as I begin structuring the third novel in the series, there sits a virtual adult male Silverback Mountain Gorilla smack dab in the middle of my desk, holding a sign that says:

Where will Nick’s character arc take him next?

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Ah, yes. Another birthday . . .

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I can’t remember the last time I got excited about a birthday. Probably sometime during my pre-teen years. Don’t know why, except to guess that maybe I didn’t have enough of them behind me to think much about how many I had remaining. But now, with the sunset of life visible on the horizon, that’s changed to the point of my preferring that birthdays pass by unnoticed.

Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the greetings received yesterday, August 24, 2014, in acknowledgment of my reaching the age of 72. Or the fact that the Novel In Progress Group of Austin surprised me at our Sunday meeting with cake and a more than passable rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”

One member of the group brought a gift. Chad Wall handed me a bottle of wine in one of those special bags, but the card wasn’t made out. I asked him about it, and his reply was something to the effect of, “I wanted you to be able to give it to someone else if it’s not a wine you like.” Hardly a chance of that, however. He picked it because the protagonist in the Pilot Error series likes Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough area of New Zealand. I mean, how else would Nick Phillips acquire a taste for any particular wine except through me?

Then last evening, my wife Ann and I had dinner with two of our favorite people, Dr. Sue Ellen Young and her husband, Dr. Guy Knolle. They gifted me with a bottle of Pinot Noir to go with Ann’s gift of another New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I made out like a bandit in the wine department. Ann also bought me a new Sonicare toothbrush. You probably can’t even begin to imagine the looks I got from nearby diners when I unwrapped it at the table.

“Yew! I hope he doesn’t use it after dinner.”

Sue designed a custom birthday card that I have to share. I’ve inserted images below of the front, inside top and bottom, and the back. You can click on any image for a larger view and return to this page with your browser’s back button.

72BdayFront 72BdayInsideUpper 72BdayInsideLower 72BdayBack


Posted in Single Ship | 2 Comments

Watch Out, Random House

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Among the indie writers I know, it’s generally accepted that having an imprint offers advantages. Defining those advantages, however, is a little more problematic.

The most obvious question is whether an imprint endows a book with any degree of legitimacy. And while that issue can easily rush into the oft-discussed differences between indie and legacy (or traditional) publishing, in spite of this post’s title, my intention is to compare the different approaches of three indie writers.

One of them has formed Enchanted Indie Press, and she is running it like a business, strangely enough, offering a multitude of services and helping clients publish books. What a unique concept.

EIP_Logo_806x582 copy_edited-1Then there’s another writer who appears to take the concept a little less seriously, but I’ll let you be the judge of Wunderfool Press. It doesn’t have a website, per se, but the fool responsible for it lives here.

WFPressLogo v5.fs copy_edited-1And then there’s me, or I, neither of which sound right. From the first day of blogging in preparation for publishing Pilot Error, I have combined the two heart-and-soul elements (other than love of family) that define me. So when coming up with an imprint, the following was very likely preordained:



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Red Line is Live

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In September, 2011, I had just published Pilot Error and wanted to get started on the next book in the series. Fresh from all of the previous effort, both in writing Pilot Error and learning everything necessary to produce the book, I approached the task with a level of confidence that in retrospect should have forewarned me of the surprises lying in ambush.

I’m a writer-group writer. Over the years of struggling to create a story that works, the benefits of being critiqued during the process have proven to be essential, especially in relation to a small group of four writers that meets weekly in my living room on Tuesday afternoons. I had barely begun the first draft of Red Line when I began receiving comments about one of the characters that caused me to re-evaluate her role in the story.

Leaving the details for another post, suffice it to say that the two female characters swapped roles in terms of who was the antagonist to Nick Phillips’ protagonist. As soon as that began to happen, I had a choice to make.

Should I go back to the beginning of the novel and revise the manuscript to incorporate the new characterization, or note the changes I’ll need to make in the second draft and keep writing? Over the years, I’ve learned that the first option can easily create what’s known as the “circular revision syndrome.” My efforts get stalled in the early portion of the novel and progress is painfully slow to non-existent. So I chose to finish the first draft before addressing the changes I knew would be required.

My confidence when writing the second draft also turned out to be misplaced. I thought I was completely redefining the character roles, when in reality they were a combination of the old and the new. Writers talk about the character arc, or how a character changes through the course of the novel, but the reshaping has to be organic to the story and not due to what we refer to as “editing artifacts.” Remnants of the old character were not allowing the new one to be fully realized.

The third draft was better, but still didn’t do justice to the new characterization. I simply didn’t recognize all the places in the story that reflected the old and needed to be updated. But to the everlasting credit of my fellow writers who stuck with me through this ordeal, we got ‘er dun.

One of the major changes in indie publishing a paperback with CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand (POD) service, is a feature called the Digital Proofer.

When I published Pilot Error in late 2011, the procedure was:

  • Upload the cover and interior files and submit for review
  • When notified that the review had been completed, order a proof copy
  • Wait 1-2 weeks for it to arrive
  • Proofread it carefully and make any necessary changes
  • Upload the revised interior and/or cover and repeat the process

But the Digital Proofer now provides authors with the opportunity to shorten the process considerably. Once notified that the review process is complete, during which CreateSpace quality controls the cover and interior files according to a set of pre-publication criteria, authors can use this online tool to proof the PDF file that will be used to print the book, and view a 3-D image of the wraparound cover. This is a marvelous feature.

An eBook cover is like looking at the front cover of a print book, and they are relatively simple as compared to one with a spine and back cover. Of particular importance is the junction of the spine with the front and back, because depending on cover design, you want to avoid “hard” lines there, especially with POD books.

The reason for this is the possibility that during the printing process, a 1/8″ shift in cover positioning can occur. A hard demarcation line exactly on the junctions between the spine  and the front and back covers is effectively hidden. But shifting it to either side can be unsightly, and authors need to pay attention to how it appears on the final product. Prior to the Digital Proofer, the only way to check that was to get a proof copy in your hand.

I’ve inserted five screenshots of the 3-D proofing tool provided by Amazon to illustrate how effective it is for checking the final appearance of the cover. On my first review of the Red Line cover, I found the text on the spine shifted slightly toward the back and was able to adjust it in Photoshop. If you look closely, you can see it in the image of the spine. It’s not much, but with the Digital Proofer, I easily eliminated it before printing any copies.






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Whassup with Red Line?

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Yesterday I received a comment from Cody McCloud on the post “Red Line – The Backstory” asking when the novel would be published.

One year after my predicted publication date, it’s hard to believe how the demands of real life outside the fictional world can interfere with the best of intentions. And although it may seem ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t tried writing a novel, characters and their stories do have minds of their own.

Since writing the previous post, I’ve completed two drafts of Red Line and am currently working on the third, and hopefully, the last. The experience has been a strange combination of headlong advancement and sudden screeching halts when the plot line and/or character development arrive at a crossroads.

The first draft included numerous decision points, that once made in combination defined the objectives for the second draft. Upon completion, I thought the story worked well until I submitted it to a small critique group of dedicated writers that meets at my home on a regular basis. Their overall assessment convinced me that I hadn’t yet achieved the true potential for Red Line, and recordings of six meetings provided a road map for the next revision.

I may have learned my lesson about predicting a publication date, and to avoid making that mistake again, suffice it to say that I hope you won’t lose patience with me as I strive to complete a story that does justice to my vision for the series and offers an entertaining read.

A special thank you to Cody McCloud, whose comment has served as a reminder that the story awaits . . .

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The Hero Room

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Other professions may dispute the claim that fighter pilots coined the term “Hero Room,” but they’d be wasting their time.

The standard scenario is that a married fighter pilot (or more specifically, a married ex-fighter pilot) wants to put all of his memorabilia in the living room. To show it off. To hear the oohs and ahs from adoring fans. To bask in that glory forever.

But his wife won’t have it, so he has to make do with a room out of sight of anyone but family. There he displays his squadron plaques and coffee cups, certificates, awards and decorations, favorite photos of those personal heydays, and in my case, a Christmas gift from a fellow ex-fighter pilot and his wife.

It sits on the wall behind my writing desk, so I don’t often notice it. But this morning I did, and on a whim I decided to snap a picture of it for the website in recognition of the description Aviator and Writer.


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My Little Mongol Warrior

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Ah, yes, Mother Nature. She can be sweet and loving one minute, and then suddenly morph into a Wicked Witch. And sometimes, she can be nothing more than whimsical.

A few months ago while exercising at the Hill Country Middle School athletic field near my home, I happened to glance down and find this. Picked it up and almost couldn’t believe how perfectly it matched my mind’s image of a Mongol warrior’s helmet. For a moment I thought about adding some facial features, but abandoned the idea when I realized that this is near perfection, and it didn’t need any help from me.



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My Best-Ever Home Repair Job

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My brother and I have a long-standing tradition of dealing with the “McIntosh Brother’s Pandora’s Box” Syndrome. We believe that Pandora has dedicated her life to making one of us miserable whenever we try to fix or improve something around the house.

So when one of us is contemplating a difficult project that might potentially be troublesome, we call up the other and suggest that he begin something simple that will distract Pandora long enough to complete the laborious project without her interference.

I did that last week, my brother cooperated by trying to replace a screw in a cabinet, and the diversion worked perfectly as documented by this photo of the final result:


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Best Intentions and Speed Bumps

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When making the decision to begin a series of mystery-thrillers about a National Transportation Safety Board aviation accident investigator and his metamorphosis into a private crash detective, I had no clue about how hard writing the second book was going to be.

During the time that some of my fellow writers have completed more than one novel, I’ve been beating my head against the twin brick walls of plot and characterization in a frustrating attempt to give readers what they expect in a series, while at the same time avoiding a formulaic approach.

To be clear, I’m not at all opposed to formulaic stories. Two of my favorite authors have created main characters I’m willing to follow through an endless succession of mysteries involving catching the bad guy. John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport (and the spin-off character Virgil Flowers), and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch can engage my interest without trying very hard because I’m only looking to be entertained. It’s not about wanting to gain a new outlook on life, religion, the pursuit of happiness, or an altered view of the universe.

These characters are all homicide detectives who, in the course of multiple novels, have individually been in more car chases and shootouts than all the policemen in the USA combined, the vast majority of whom never pull their weapons, much less pull the triggers. I know that’s not realistic, but I don’t care. The last thing I want to read about is the dull, mundane everyday boredom of being a cop. I’m looking for the exciting stuff. So when my buddy Lucas Davenport gets in another firefight, I’m loving it.

Shifting focus now to Nick Phillips’ role in Red Line, I got about halfway through the first draft and realized that his being a pilot had taken a back seat. He needed to travel from his home in Cedar Valley Colorado to Phoenix Arizona, for example, and I put him in a Jeep. Huh? Why not let him fly there?

Okay, that’s easy to do, but most pilots never have a life-threatening emergency in an airplane. And just as I don’t want to read about Harry Bosch doing paperwork for 300 pages, it’s not hard to conclude that my readers aren’t interested in being with Nick during hours of flight in cruise. A common description of flying is, “Hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer, stark, raving terror,” which is where I need to put Nick, who then becomes either the most incompetent pilot in the world, the unluckiest, or both.

It may seem incredibly dense of me not to have grasped this truth from the outset, but I finally came to realize that any reader who wants to follow Nick’s adventures in second and subsequent novels won’t hold it against me if I confront him with an unrealistic number of tense situations in airplanes.

Another problem arrived with that conclusion, however. I can’t have Nick chasing after bad guys in airplanes over and over again, especially since he’s not flying a fighter with machine guns mounted in the wings. That would be a lot of fun to write, but . . .

Nick’s character arc in Pilot Error was easy for me to imagine because of the original concept for the series about a disenfranchised sleuth, a term used to describe the typical private investigator. Something happens to terminate the main character’s career as a law enforcement officer, and he continues doing what he does best as a PI.

In Nick’s case, the additional thematic element of family versus career is integrated with his transition from husband and father to homicide investigator (in violation of his official role with the NTSB) and finally to avenger (i.e. vigilante). I’ve always liked that concept, but it didn’t dawn on me until well into the first draft of Red Line how another aspect of the aviation theme would complicate my plans for the series.

The typical PI in fiction operates on the fringes of legality when it comes to handling the chain of evidence. He can’t hand a murder weapon to a homicide detective for use in proving a case against a killer. It takes creativity, better described as framing, to sic the law on the bad guy, or more commonly, direct action. Readers forgive the PI because his actions are justifiable under the principle of doing what it takes to obtain justice for the victims.

My private crash detective has a similar problem. In the absence of official status, he can only gain access to the evidence after the wreckage is released by the NTSB. Once his superlative and tenacious sleuthing skills uncover the truth about what caused the crash, he can’t hand it to the NTSB (which is prohibited from investigating criminal wrongdoing anyway), or the FBI because a legal chain of evidence doesn’t exist. What about direct action? Will readers accept him in a vigilante role?

I’m personally a law-and-order guy. One of my favorite movie scenes is from “And Justice For All,” in which actor Jack Warden plays the part of a judge who rules his courtroom in unusual fashion. At one point, the judge picks up a law book off the bench, announces, “This is law . . .” then pulls a Colt .45 from under his robe and says, “. . . and this is order.” My sentiments exactly.

Readers who have accepted Nick’s actions in Pilot Error will probably give him some leeway when it comes to seeking justice. That said, he can’t be a rendition of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey character in “Death Wish” and its sequels.

Layered on top of these issues is the sometimes rebellious tendency of a story to assume a life of its own.

It sounds absurd when authors tell normal people that a character in their novels took over and shifted the plot, but it’s a real phenomenon. In some cases, it opens new doors into tunnels that have light at the end. It can also lead into blind alleys where the story grinds to a halt.

In Red Line, some of my characters refused to accept their assigned roles. I hadn’t even finished the first draft when a compelling urge came over me to show three more characters in point-of-view (for a total of five), which is a major decision that alters many other aspects of the story. Rather than go back to the beginning and revise the earlier chapters to reflect this decision, I elected to complete the first draft and incorporate the changes in the second draft.

When I submitted this revision in six installments to the smaller of two writers’ critique groups in which I participate (known as Little Group, or “El Gee,”) they let me know very quickly that I’d missed capturing the essence of what they believe to be the ultimate potential of my vision for the story.

Although it may sound contradictory to allow the opinions of others to affect my vision, it’s not in the least a question of letting them write the story for me the way they would like to see it. Of all the benefits we find by participating in El Gee, the collaborative brain-storming effort centered on plot and characterization is invaluable because it expands the horizons of the two most important structural elements.

I have six recorded El Gee critique sessions waiting from earlier this year when I had to put aside my daily writing effort temporarily to deal with issues involved with the other half of this website’s description. As you might imagine, airplanes require careful attention to maintenance details, and ignoring them is not an option.

My current strategy is to review the recordings and create a revision plan for the third draft that will incorporate the lessons learned, and the time has come to get started.

Posted in Red Line | 4 Comments

Asiana 214 – A View Into the Cockpit

If the title of this post is black and/or you see the fighter-pilot header, click on the title to view the featured-image header and continue reading. Header image credit: Justin Sullivan via aviationweek.com

On May 27, 1977, a collision between a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 747 and a Pan American Airways 747 entered the record as the deadliest tragedy in the history of aviation. And to call it an accident, which we commonly do, is a gross misrepresentation of what happened.

The primary cause was a classic case of pilot error in which the KLM Captain ignored the cautions from his First and Second Officers and initiated a takeoff without clearance from the tower at the Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands. Due to a combination of contributory causes, the Pan Am 747 had not yet cleared the runway and 583 people died.

One of the most significant and long-lasting lessons learned from this horrific mistake ultimately resulted in erosion of the pervasive attitude in the cockpits of commercial airliners that the captain is God’s gift to aviation and no one questions a supreme being of such magnificence. The altered and overriding principle became known as Cockpit (or Crew) Resource Management, or CRM.

Complete investigation into the recent crash of Asiana Flight 214 and publication of the final accident (there’s that word again) report will take many months. Rampant media speculation initially presented so-called experts whose talking heads offered opinions with little or no basis in fact or experience, but the focus quickly narrowed based on clear, unequivocal evidence of human failure.

The crew of Asiana 214 allowed their Boeing 777 to descend well below a normal approach path to Runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport and failed to maintain a safe airspeed. These two factors in combination put the aircraft in a position from which a safe recovery was impossible when too-little, too-late corrective action was taken. The accident was totally preventable if the crew had only done what pilots are supposed to do.

All air carriers have increasingly strict operational procedures governing mandatory crew actions during the approach and landing phase of flight. As the aircraft gets lower to the ground, excessive deviations from what are called “stabilized approach” parameters related to course, glide path, airpseed, and configuration mandate a rejected landing. The investigation will ultimately show that the crew of Asiana 214 failed to correct for multiple divergences from a standard approach to landing.

The big gorilla question in the room, of course, is why. How is it possible that the combined flight experience of multiple crew members ignored the most basic of pilot responsibilities: Don’t fly a perfectly good airplane into violent contact with the ground. And yet they did.

I received the following from a college buddy and roommate in USAF pilot training, who had received it from friends of his. Although it has some specific terminology that will be unfamiliar to non-aviators, the basic premise is crystal clear: The cockpit environment of Asiana 214 was poisoned by a culture of subservience to authority which is the antithesis of CRM. The text begins with short introductory remarks from each of the pilots:

“This is from a very good friend, Ret LTC US Army Aviation (SIP), with 5000 + hrs & a lot of it combat time. He has a number of friends that are military & former military pilots (Army & Air Force) that he keeps in contact with and they all share opinions and stories. This is very interesting and worth reading to the end.”

“Thou shall not be flying Korean Air Lines any time soon, maybe ever!  Doesn’t sound like friendly skies.”

“I too thought about CRM and the Asian culture. The simulator instructor really expresses the problem well, albeit a bit scary. The account from the United Air Lines pilot is also interesting. I still believe the best pilot training is the good old USA military where you really learn how to strap on those airplanes.”

“When I merged with Delta, they were linked with Korean Airlines and they had numerous accidents and incidents. Just wanted you all to see what their cockpit experience levels are. And to support USA pilot training, CRM procedures and good old USAF military training. This from my ––– pilot network.

I cannot imagine 4 pilots watching the air speed deteriorate and no one doing anything.”

And so, with those introductions, here’s the original text with minor editing:

After I retired from UAL as a Standards Captain on the 400, I got a job as a simulator instructor working for Alteon (a Boeing subsidiary) at Asiana. When I first got there, I was shocked and surprised by the lack of basic piloting skills shown by most of the pilots. It is not a normal situation with progression from new hire, to right seat, and finally to left seat taking a decade or two.

One big difference is that ex-military pilots are given super-seniority and progress to the left seat much faster. Compared to the US, they also upgrade fairly rapidly because of the phenomenal growth by all Asian air carriers. By the way, after about six months at Asiana, I was moved over to KAL and found them to be identical. The only difference was the color of the uniforms and airplanes. I worked in Korea for 5 long years and although I found most of the people to be very pleasant, it’s a minefield of a work environment . . . for them and for us expats.

One of the first things I learned was that the pilots kept a website and reported on every training session. I don’t think this was officially sanctioned by the company, but after one or two simulator periods, a database was building on me (and everyone else) that told them exactly how I ran the sessions, what to expect on checks, and what to look out for.

For example; I used to open an aft cargo door at 100 knots to get them to initiate an RTO [rejected takeoff] and I would brief them on it during the briefing. This was on the B-737 NG. Many of the new captains were coming off the B777 or B747 and they were used to the Master Caution System [annunciator lights that alert pilots to malfunctioning systems on the aircraft] being inhibited at 80 kts. Well, for the first few days after I started that, EVERYONE rejected the takeoff. Then, all of a sudden they all “got it” and continued the takeoff (in accordance with their manuals). The word had gotten out. I figured it was an overall plus for the training program.

We expat instructors were forced upon them after the number of fatal accidents (most of the them totally avoidable) over a decade began to be noticed by the outside world. They were basically given an ultimatum by the FAA, Transport Canada, and the EU to totally rebuild and rethink their training program or face being banned from the skies all over the world.

They hired Boeing and Airbus to staff the training centers. KAL has one center and Asiana has another. When I was there (2003-2008) we had about 60 expats conducting training KAL and about 40 at Asiana. Most instructors were from the USA, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand with a few stuffed in from Europe and Asia. Boeing also operated training centers in Singapore and China so they did hire some instructors from there.

This solution has only been partially successful but still faces ingrained resistance from the Koreans. I lost track of the number of highly qualified instructors I worked with who were fired because they tried to enforce normal standards of performance. By normal standards, I would include being able to master basic tasks like successfully shooting a visual approach with 10 knot crosswind and the weather CAVU [clear and visibility unlimited). I am not kidding when I tell you that requiring them to shoot a visual approach struck fear in their hearts . . . with good reason. Like this SFO Asiana crew, it didn’t compute that you needed to be a 1000’ AGL at 3 miles and your sink rate should be 600-800 ft/min. [These are basic approach parameters that any commercial pilot should know and be capable of achieving by hand-flying the airplane.]

After 5 years, they finally nailed me. I still had to sign my name to their training and sometimes if I just couldn’t pass someone on a check, I had no choice but to fail them. I usually busted about 3-5 crews a year and the resistance against me built. I failed an extremely incompetent crew and it turned out he was a high-ranking captain and the Chief Line Check pilot on the fleet I was teaching on. I found out on my next monthly trip home that KAL was not going to renew my Visa. The crew I failed was given another check and continued a fly while talking about how unfair I was.

Any of you Boeing glass-cockpit guys will know what I mean when I describe these events.

[The following description is aviation tech-heavy. In a nutshell, it describes an instrument approach procedure that the simulator training instructor has asked the crew to prepare for and fly to demonstrate proficiency in using the navigation systems when operating in instrument meteorological condition, or IMC.]

I gave them a VOR approach with an 15 mile arc from the IAF. By the way, KAL dictated the profiles for all sessions and we just administered them. This captain requested two turns in holding at the IAF to get set up for the approach. When he finally got his nerve up, he requested “Radar Vectors” to final. He could have just said he was ready for the approach and I would have cleared him to the IAF and then “cleared for the approach” and he could have selected “Exit Hold” and been on his way. He was already in LNAV/VNAV PATH.

So, I gave him vectors to final with a 30 degree intercept. Each time he failed to “extend the FAF” so he couldn’t understand why it would not intercept the LNAV magenta line when he punched LNAV and VNAV. He made three approaches and three missed approaches before he figured out that his active waypoint was “Hold at XYZ.” Every time he punched LNAV, it would try to go back to the IAF . . . just like it was supposed to do. Since it was a check, I was not allowed (by their own rules) to offer him any help. That was just one of about half dozen major errors I documented in his UNSAT paperwork. He also failed to put in any aileron on takeoff with a 30-knot direct crosswind (again, the weather was dictated by KAL).

This Asiana SFO [San Francisco] accident makes me sick, and while I am surprised there are not more, I expect that there will be many more of the same type of accidents in the future unless some drastic steps are taken to teach third world pilots basic flying. They are already required to hire a certain percentage of expats to try to ingrain more flying expertise in them, but more likely, they will eventually be fired too.

One of the best trainees I ever had was a Korean/American (he grew up and went to school in the USA) who flew C-141s in the USAF. When he got out, he moved back to Korea and got hired by KAL. I met him when I gave him some training and a check on the B-737 and of course, he breezed through the training. I give him annual PCs [Proficiency Checks] for a few years and he was always a good pilot. Then, he got involved with trying to start a pilots union and when they tried to enforce some sort of duty rigs on international flights, he was fired after being arrested and jailed.

Koreans are very, very bright and smart, so I was puzzled by their inability to fly an airplane well. They would show up on Day 1 of training (an hour before the scheduled briefing time, in a 3-piece suit, and shined shoes) with the entire contents of the FCOM [Flight Crew Operating Manual] and Flight Manual totally memorized. But, putting that information to actual use was many times impossible.

Crosswind landings are also an unsolvable puzzle for most of them. I never did figure it out completely, but I think I did uncover a few clues. Here is my best guess.

First off, their educational system emphasizes rote memorization from the first day of school as little kids. As you know, that is the lowest form of learning. so they act like robots. They are also taught to NEVER challenge authority, and in spite of the flight training heavily emphasizing CRM, the never-challenge-authority environment still exists in the cockpit either on the surface or very subtly. You just can’t change 3000 years of culture.

The other thing that I think plays an important role is the fact that there is virtually NO civil aircraft flying in Korea. It’s illegal to own a Cessna-152 and just go learn to fly. Ultra-lights and powered hang gliders are OK. I guess they don’t trust the people to not start WW III by flying 35 miles north of Inchon into North Korea.

But they don’t have the kids who grew up flying (and thinking for themselves) and hanging around airports. They do recruit some kids from college and send then to the US or Australia and get them their tickets [pilot’s licenses and ratings]. Generally, I had better experience with them than with the Korean ex-Military pilots. This was a surprise to me as I spent years as a Naval Aviator flying fighters after getting my private [license] in light airplanes. I would get experienced F-4, F-5, F-15, and F-16 pilots who were actually terrible pilots if they had to hand-fly the airplane. It was a shock.

Finally, I’ll get off my soap box and talk about the total flight hours they claim. I accept that there are a few talented and free-thinking pilots that I met and trained in Korea. Some are still in contact and I consider them friends. They were a joy, but they were few and far between and certainly not the norm.

This is a worldwide problem involving automation and the auto-flight concept. Take one of these new first officers who got his ratings in the US or Australia and came to KAL or Asiana with 225 flight hours. In accordance with their SOP [Standard Operating Procedures], he calls for the autopilot to be engaged at 250 feet just after takeoff. How much actual flight time is that? Not even one minute. Then he might fly for hours on the autopilot and finally disengage it (MAYBE?) below 800 feet after the gear was down, flaps extended and on airspeed using the autothrottle. Then he might bring it in to land. Again, how much real flight time or real experience did he get? Minutes! Of course, on the 777 or 747, it’s the same, only they get more inflated logbooks.

So, when I hear that a 10,000 hour Korean Captain was vectored in for a 17-mile final and cleared for a visual approach in CAVU [clear] weather, it raises the hair on the back of my neck.

Here is an email from a United crew holding short of the runway as the Asiana B-777 approached: [Note: The original text of the following has extensive aviation acronyms and terminology. I’ve edited a good bit of that out.]

On July 6, 2013, I was a 747-400 relief First Officer on a flight from San Francisco to Japan and witnessed the Asiana Flt 214 accident. We had taxied to hold short of runway 28L at SFO, and were waiting to rectify a HAZMAT [hazardous materials] cargo issue and obtain our final weights. As we waited just prior to the perpendicular holding area for the runway, all three pilots took notice of the Asiana 777 on short final.

The aircraft looked low on glidepath and had a very high deck angle compared to what seemed normal. I then noticed that with the apparent descent rate and closure to the runway environment, the aircraft looked as though it was going to impact the approach lights mounted on piers in SF Bay. The aircraft made a fairly drastic-looking pull up in the last few feet, and it appeared and sounded as if they had applied maximum thrust. However the descent path they were on continued and the thrust applied didn’t appear to come soon enough to prevent impact.

The tail cone and empennage of the 777 impacted the bulkhead seawall and departed the airplane, and the main landing gear sheared off instantly. This created a long debris field along the right side of the approach end of the runway. We saw the fuselage, largely intact, slide down the runway and out of view of our cockpit. We heard much confusion and quick instructions from SFO tower and a few moments later heard an aircraft go around over the runway 28 complex.

Approximately two minutes later I was looking out the left side cockpit windows and noticed movement on the right side of Runway 28L. Two survivors were stumbling but moving abeam the Runway 28L marking on the north side of the runway. I saw one survivor stand up, walk a few feet, then appear to squat down. The other appeared to be a woman and was walking, then fell off to her side and remained on the ground until rescue personnel arrived.

The Captain was on the radio and I told him to tell tower what I had seen, but I ended up taking the microphone instead of relaying through him. I told SFO tower that there appeared to be survivors on the right side of the runway and they needed to send assistance immediately. It seemed to take a very long time for vehicles and assistance to arrive for these victims. The survivors I saw were approximately 1000-1500′ away from the fuselage and had apparently been ejected from the fuselage.

By this point everyone had looked out the windows and could see the smoke plume from the 777. A number of passengers also noticed what I had seen with the survivors out near the end of 28L and expressed concern that the rescue effort appeared slow for those individuals that had been separated from the airplane wreckage.

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