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Competence in a Crisis – Performance at the Boundary

Throughout this book I have tried to avoid, as far as possible, any reference to catastrophic, fatal accidents unless the specific case allowed me to reflect on normal operations. In this section, we are moving towards the periphery of the normal envelope. These boundary states will probably involve damaged or degraded systems, extreme weather events or some significant challenge to the crew. In all probability, we are now beyond the company’s designed coping strategies and success will probably be predicated on skill, ingenuity, luck or all three. Abnormal or emergency situations, these boundary conditions, are typically unfamiliar, unplanned and unexpected. SOPs do not always work. Quite often, causes are not immediately apparent nor are they comprehensible. One of the problems is that, in emergency situations, we often have multiple goals but it is not always clear how these goals are to be achieved. Uncertainty is the theme of such situations, as is intense stress. This is the area of ‘knowledge-based’ behaviour - fundamental knowledge (systems and procedures) is used to create rules that can be used to drive behaviour and improvisation is often required. On 4 November 2010, a Qantas Airbus A-380 departing from Singapore suffered a major engine failure (ATSB, 2013). The significant damage to the aircraft and its systems resulted in the crew having to deal with in incessant cascade of alarms and failure indications. After trying to cope using the standard approach taught in the simulator, the captain realised that they faced an impossible task. He then decided that rather than trying to deal with what was wrong with the aircraft, it would be more beneficial to establish what systems were still working and to manage the situation with the assets remaining. The aircraft landed safely back at Singapore but the outcome required a radically different approach to emergency management.

Again, Kluge’s work offers a task analysis for dealing with abnormal and emergency situations. The defining characteristics of these situations appear to be increased ambiguity and elevated stress. While time may be a factor, it is more often significant simply because fundamental processes consume more of it. Therefore, the tasks Kluge has identified reflect the need to seek clarity and increase control. She proposes three significant clusters around diagnosis, communication and group functioning:


Establish deviations from a normal state

Collect information about cues

Establish abnormal cues based on the mental model

Compare assumptions about cause and effect relations among cues

Use critical thinking

Apply team knowledge (task, team, process and goal-related)


Use proper phraseology

Pays attention to completeness of standard reports (listening)

Seek information/clarification and check understanding Communicate information to the team

Exchange information and comprehensions to establish a shared understanding of the problem

Formulate and communicate hypothesis about cause and effect relationships Group functioning

Resolve opposing interpretations based on team conflict resolution

States appropriate priorities

Update situation periodically

Monitor and support others

Provide guidance and suggestions to others

Apply stress-coping strategies

Of interest is the role of a more formal approach to communication. In Chapter 8, we saw that modes of speech change under conditions of increased task demand as the social dynamic changes. More rigorous attention to structure, completeness and distribution of communication acts is important. We also see that additional resource must be allocated to maintaining the structure and functioning of the team. Collaboration emerges as a possible candidate for our list while the need for coping is reinforced.

An Outline Competence Model

This exploration of performance can be summarised in an eight-factor model of competence (Table 11.6). Each competence can be elaborated as a set of behaviours, activities and, in most cases, underpinning knowledge. It is almost possible to make a case for ‘deciding’ and ‘communicating’ to be supra-ordinate competence, the former being an outcome of the actions of other competencies while the latter being a facilitating process. Fundamentally, the model describes the behaviours associated with goal-directed performance in systems model. I make no reference to the manual control of an aircraft because I consider that to be a skill. It supports performance and is a reversionary mode should other technical systems fail but it serves no purpose in itself (unless the pilot is engaged in recreational flying). That said, the model is not a framework for assessment and, undoubtedly, the evaluation of flying skills is important. We will look at assessment in the next chapter.

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