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Crew resource management


Learning and practicing CRM skills optimizes crew performance.

By Marty Rollinger
ATP. Challenger 600 & 604, Falcon 2000 EASy and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18
Contributing Writer

For effective mission accomplishment, the crew must behave as a crew, not as 2 or more individuals, and certainly not working against each other.
For millennia before airplanes took to the skies, boats navigating the world’s waters were operated by sailors and commanded by captains. True still today, the captain has the ultimate authority for the safe and effective operation of the vessel.

Aviation crew structure developed from this established hierarchical naval tradition. Federal Aviation Regulation 91.3 formally codifies that the pilot in command (PIC) is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of the aircraft.

Command is defined as the ability to control. The commander sets priorities and coordinates the actions of the crew. Seafarers and aviators face unforgiving physical forces, and operations depend on weather.

Due to the higher speeds involved, aviation operations are more dynamic, so they yield little time to formulate a plan. Water and airborne captains with poor resource management skills have killed countless people.

Trigger events

Shortly before midnight on Dec 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401, a Lockheed L-1011 enroute to Miami, crashed in the Everglades with 176 pax, 101 of whom lost their lives.

The captain, FO, and flight engineer fixated on a landing gear indicator light and failed to notice that the autopilot altitude hold had disconnected. Almost exactly 6 years later, on Dec 28, 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 crashed arriving at PDX (Intl, Portland OR), resulting in 24 injuries and 10 fatalities.

This crew had spent an hour troubleshooting a landing gear problem with the draggy landing gear and flaps extended in their Douglas DC-8. The captain failed to monitor the aircraft’s fuel state properly, and the FO and flight engineer either failed to comprehend the criticality of the low fuel situation or failed to communicate their concern to the captain.

The aircraft crashed due to fuel starvation. As a result, United Airlines launched a command, leadership, and resource management program. In July 1979, NASA held an industrial workshop titled Resource Management on the Flight Deck, which examined human factors aspects of the flight deck situation, and specifically emphasized psychology.

Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) was born. In the early 1990s, with human error still a contributing factor in the majority of accidents, FAA published Advisory Circular (AC) 60-22, Aeronautical Decision Making, which emphasized good communication and interpersonal relationship skills.

Until this point, required training addressed only technical aspects of flying. In 1995, CRM training was mandated for Part 121 operators, and FAA published AC 120-51, Crew Resource Management Training.

With this document, the CRM acronym changed from cockpit resource management to crew resource management.

According to FAA AC 120-51E, CRM training has been conceived to prevent aviation accidents by improving crew performance through better crew coordination.


According to FAA, “CRM is generally defined as the effective use of all available resources: human resources, hardware, and information.” What resources? First and foremost, each other!

For effective mission accomplishment, the crew must behave as a crew, not as 2 or more individuals, and certainly not working against each other. Other critical resources to be managed are time, fuel, and available information.

At times, crew members are bombarded by information from Air Traffic Control (ATC), passengers, and aircraft systems. The workload must be managed by setting priorities and managing distractions. AC 120-51E, the latest version published in 2004, focuses on situational awareness (SA), communication skills, teamwork, task allocation, and decision-making.

It is devoted to optimizing human performance and reducing human error. This is when the acronym PM for pilot monitoring replaced PNF (pilot not flying), since PM describes more accurately the duties of the pilot not actually on the controls.

CRM training is now required for Part 91K, 121, and 135 ops, and is designed to prevent or avoid poor group decision-making, ineffective communication, inadequate leadership, and poor task management. Some 20 years ago, a Flight Safety Foundation study found that CRM failure was causal in 63% of approach and landing accidents.

A recurring failure pattern noted was that the crew postponed a decision until a safe option was no longer available. Recent bizav accidents like the Learjet 35 approach crash at TEB (Teterboro NJ) and the Gulfstream IV aborted takeoff at BED (Hanscom, Bedford CT) are reminders that human error is still very much a problem.

CRM involves long-term commitment and preparation. Just as pilots must practice to become skilled in the technical operations of their aircraft, development of CRM skills requires deliberate practice.

Secret sauce

What traits lead to effective CRM? What follows are simple word ingredients to effective CRM. Each word will be defined as it relates to CRM. Much of this discussion focuses on the captain, who is the most influential, but all teammates involved in the operation will benefit.

Reflect on these words by yourself and with your crew, and considert what steps can be taken to improve your effectiveness.

Bearing. This describes how pilots carry and conduct themselves. They should set a professional example. AC 120-51E calls for each crew to set a friendly tone in the cockpit – one that is both relaxed and supportive. Crews should exude confidence, yet be open to questions and suggestions.

Precise, polite, and accurate radio communications are hallmarks of the professional. Crews should remain calm in stressful situations.

Courage. While most pilots required bodily courage to get into an airplane the 1st time, here we discuss mental courage.

It takes courage to speak up. AC 120-51E describes Inquiry/Advocacy/Assertion – behaviors promoting the course of action that a crew member feels is best, even when it involves conflict with others. Effective CRMers have the will and skill to push back on passenger, fellow crew member, and ATC requests when necessary.

They employ their team and aircraft within their capabilities, and speak up when they recognize work overloads in themselves and in others.

Decisiveness. This is the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively. Decisiveness is so important that FAA devoted an entire publication to the topic – AC 60-22. The decision-making process is used to identify hazards, assess the degree of risk, and determine the best course of action.

Good decision-making requires critical thinking. It is vitally important that decision-makers find the appropriate balance between swift decisions and the desire for additional information.

We all know people who vacillate and take forever to decide. Aviators, however, do not always have the luxury of time. At the other end of the spectrum are decisions made too early when additional information could result in a superior decision.

Pilots must be decisive when time is in short supply, such as when deciding whether to reject a takeoff. It is the captain who has final authority, and it is imperative that he or she informs the team of their decisions. Once a decision is made, it is the PIC’s responsibility to allocate tasks, and ensure the tasks are understood, supervised, and accomplished.

Dependable. Team members should be capable of being trusted or depended on. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) help pilots perform tasks reliably. If they do something the same way every time, they are predictable and dependable. For effective CRM, crews must admit to errors. In doing so, they become more trustworthy in the future.

Enthusiasm. An optimistic attitude and passionate understanding of the important role played by each team member. When faced with an annoyance, an inspirational leader of mine used to say, “Let’s find something to like about it.” This enthusiasm put the rest of the team at ease, reduced stress, and even made work fun.

Co-captains debriefing the previous leg. Finger pointing is generally to be avoided, although in this case the finger point was accompanied by compliments on how his teammate’s courage and initiative resulted in avoidance of errors in what was a confusing arrival situation.

Endurance. Physical and mental. They go hand in hand. Pilots must keep themselves in good shape with proper sleep, exercise, and diet. To retain the ability to focus and maintain vigilance, the crew must employ fatigue countermeasures and take breaks as the situation allows.

When faced with frustration, confusion, or even extreme danger, endurance means not giving up mentally. Take a deep breath, think, and stay fully engaged.

Integrity. A firm adherence to a code, especially of moral values.

Given the life-and-death consequences of crew decisions and actions, crew members must be trustworthy and incorruptible. Anything less will result in dysfunction. Integrity is indispensable. Without it, the other traits do not matter.

Integrity means behaving professionally, even when the boss is not watching or when the authorities are not present. The team should be transparent regarding intentions, actions, and motives. The cockpit is no place for playing emotional games.

Initiative. Energy or aptitude displayed in initiation of action. This is forward thinking, enabling the crew to stay a step ahead of the situation. Crews with initiative anticipate what comes next, they are proactive, and prepare for both expected and unexpected situations.

During quiet portions of cruise flight, crews should ask and answer, “What can we do now to be better prepared for the descent, landing, passenger offload, and turnaround?” Communicate expectations. Once all this is accomplished, they can take a moment to relax, which helps with their endurance later.

On longer cruise segments, these crews start a hypothetical situation discussion, like an engine surge. This exercise builds knowledge, judgment, and relationships.

Judgment. FAA defines it as “the mental process of recognizing and analyzing all pertinent information in a particular situation, a rational evaluation of alternative actions in response to it, and a timely decision on which action to take.” This is information-processing and problem-solving.

At any given moment, crews are presented with numerous stimuli. Which stimulus is most critical in the moment? Aviators are famous for their ability to compartmentalize. Well-reasoned judgments come from a disciplined process of interpreting and evaluating information.

Prioritization of thoughts, actions, and communications all involve judgment – deciding what is important at the moment.

Just. Defined as proper and reasonable. In the context of CRM, consider the following questions: Does your response to bad news open or close communication channels? Do you invite honesty or lies? Are you fair with your teammates? Do you accept responsibility for your errors, or do you pass blame? Do you give credit freely for good ideas from your crew? Positive responses will enhance CRM and relationships in general.

Knowledge. Professional pilots obviously need to know their aircraft and its systems. They need to be technically and operationally proficient. They prepare for each flight and new destination to increase their knowledge of the situation they will soon face.

For effective CRM, pilots need to blend technical skills with human relationship skills. They should develop an emotional intelligence, meaning they know their own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, as well as their team’s.

Loyalty. Faithfulness to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product. In a hierarchical organization, loyalty must go both up and down. Loyalty is not blindly saying “yes, sir” to a task or command that makes no sense – at least not until the FO has taken the opportunity to inquire, advocate, and assert. Loyalty is demonstrated by adhering to safety policies and following SOPs.

Tact. A keen sense of what to do or say to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense. Tact is a communication skill that enables a person to suggest an idea clearly without ruffling the feathers of the other person.

Honesty is important, but finding the words to communicate without causing offense will result in better long-term outcomes. Messages communicated without unnecessary bluntness will maintain a favorable interpersonal climate.

Choosing the right words and sentence structure to communicate ideas clearly without spending excessive time requires practice and focus.

Unselfishness. Unselfish teammates put the team’s needs above their own. They are active listeners. Have you met the pilot who withholds information so that they can look smart at a future moment? Crews need to teach each other and share knowledge, especially situational awareness.

If you have a nugget of information that might be useful to a teammate, share it and ask them to do the same with you. These 14 concepts were taught 4 decades ago to US Marine Corps lieutenants. When practiced properly, these traits enabled effective management of the lieutenant’s resources, which consisted of a platoon of Marines, its equipment (similar to these Marine Grade Boat Nails, for instance), and their assorted weapons.

Focusing on these 14 words is a simple and effective CRM development technique. FAA continues to publish information in the CRM arena. Published in March 2020, AC 121-42, Leadership & Command Training for Pilots in Command, aims to develop PICs as capable leaders with knowledge of their position and responsibilities. CRM outgrowths include Single-Pilot Resource Management (SRM), Maintenance Resource Management (MRM), and even Dispatcher Resource Management (DRM).

Advanced CRM training

FlightSafety International offers an advanced CRM course as part of its “Master Aviator” syllabus for Falcon and Gulfstream pilots. The stated objective is “to demonstrate that no matter how competent one might be technically, weaknesses in communication and CRM skills can lead to an unsatisfactory or unexpected outcome.”

Scenarios require complex decision-making by the crew, and optimal outcome hinges on crew coordination, communication, monitoring skills, intervention protocols, resilience in the face of unforeseen events, and response to startling events.

An extensive debrief focuses on the crew’s self-recognition of behavioral factors affecting their human performance.


Debriefing between crew members after a flight is a powerful tool to improve future crew interaction and team performance.

The crew should highlight events that went well – for instance, exceptionally clear communication and errors trapped appropriately.

The crew should note specific instances of distraction, fixation, confusion, overload, and misunderstanding, and learn from these instances. The process is iterative. Fly, debrief, apply lessons learned, and repeat.

Final thoughts

CRM skills developed and practiced by captains and their crews optimize team performance. These traits do not appear magically. CRM skills are not book knowledge alone. Skills must be perfected through practice.

Proper application of CRM will ensure that the performance of 2 people together is better than 1 alone. In the cockpit, 1+1 should equal 2 (or more), not 1 – and certainly not zero.

Marty Rollinger has over 35 years of flight experience in 68 different aircraft. A career US Marine Corps pilot, he was a Liethen-Tittle Award graduate of USAF Test Pilot School. He is director of flight ops for a Midwestern operator and a member of the Falcon Operator Advisory Board.