Four Persuasive Words That Could Have Saved Twelve Lives

Last night I tuned into one of my favorite shows on television, Airline Disasters.  No, I don’t enjoy watching plane crashes. I am, however, interested in the way they probe for the causes of each crash. Crashes caused by poor communication grab my attention. I ask myself what they could have done different to avoid the disaster.

The idea of watching plane crashes may make your belly churn. Take heart. There’s a silver lining at the end of every episode. The results of these crash investigations lead to changes that make us safer.

Sunday’s episode showed a prime example of poor communication. The copilot voiced several warnings to the pilot. His instruments showed they were off course. The pilot dismissed all his concerns. Alarms sounded. The copilot yelled go around.  At four hundred feet in altitude the pilot increased power. He tried to gain altitude. He was too late. The plane crashed into a hill.

The lead investigator noted eighteen instances where the copilot voiced concern. Each time he tried to warn the pilot the plane was off course. Why did the pilot fail to listen?

It’s easy to put all the blame on the pilot. He failed to listen to his copilot. Could the copilot have done something different? We will never know. From the re-enactment of the cockpit voice recorder, I noted three strategies that may have persuaded the captain to listen. Each one yields extra firepower when you communicate to someone in a higher authority.

Indirect Warnings

The copilot raised concerns but he only gave one direct warning. Most of his other statements were hints of a problem. Things that a more experienced pilot could note, but easily dismiss. There’s a time and place for subtlety. Sometimes you just need to be direct and stern. It’s difficult when you’re in a junior position. A direct warning that disaster loomed might have been more convincing.


The copilot gave no plausible reason why things were off.  He lacked experience and knowledge. He could not articulate why things looked off. Perhaps if he said “our compasses don’t match” the pilot would have seen the problem.

Those four words could have saved the lives of the passengers and crew. The copilot didn’t know his stuff.  He could not offer a plausible reason for his concerns. Maybe that’s why the pilot failed to take him seriously.


The copilot gave up his power. When the pilot rebuked him he gave in. To his credit he tried several more times. He never insisted. He never put himself on the line and demanded they abort the approach. It’s easy for me to say he should have stuck his neck out. There may have been consequences to challenging his pilot. He may have been wrong. That would reflect poorly on his record. At least they all would be alive.

Fortunately for us, most situations that require us to challenge an authority figure are not life and death. There’s less at stake. As you can see, even in life and death decisions, humans find it difficult to do what’s uncomfortable.


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