Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is
available with written permission from the Foundation.
From the Aviation Employee's Perspective
After our last Wednesday Wisdom was published, we received the following note
from a retired American Airlines airport leader, Greg Klein. Greg, who was head of
Little Rock, AR, station when American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed, June 1, 1999,
resulting in 11 fatalities and 134 survivors.
Carolyn, Good words of wisdom.
When I look back, I had all the same feelings, and while I got positive
feedback from Bob Baker and my boss, I am now wondering if I did a proper job
of thanking my employee responders. Sad, but I don't remember. Like we have
discussed before, I think the brain selectively eliminates some events from our
memories. I'd be much better if 1420 happened to me today because of you and
the wisdom you share. I am wondering if the young Greg would even read the
Wednesday Wisdom articles before 1420. I hope he would have.
From us at the Foundation, "Thank you, Greg. It is good to be validated!"
“I knew I was looking for a jumbo jet. I was looking for Eastern Airlines Flight
401 that had crashed earlier that night in the Everglades. As I approached the
area where the plane had reportedly gone down, I could not see the airplane. I
saw something that made no sense to me. It was people waving their hands
in the air, and little tiny white lights  around them—but no airplane. And
then I realized that this was the crash site. These were survivors trying to wave
me in. As I descended onto the site, I now recognized fragments of the jumbo jet
that had once been the pride of the Eastern Airlines’ fleet.” (Excerpt from a
conversation with a Coast Guard pilot who flew one of the first helicopters to the
scene the night that Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Miami Everglades,
December 29, 1972, killing 101 people.)
The previous articles in this series described how the concept of a schema (picture,
model or conceptual framework) could affect the primary survivor’s ability to respond
to trauma, and/or integrate experiences over time, as well as cruise line employees
who survive a crisis at sea. This article will cite examples where aviation
employees are impacted similarly. The pilot who described the scene he
encountered when EAL Flight 401 went down, provides an example of how the
picture in one’s mind may not match reality when disaster strikes. While he quickly
adjusted what he was expecting and what he found, and continued with his rescue
efforts, many times this disconnect between expectation and reality can take more
time and delay a response. And in many cases, this mismatch can slow an
employee's healing from trauma.
There have been many events in aviation where accidents undermined the ordinary
sense of safety that most take for granted in the industry. Airline employees must
fly for the company to operate, and yet their fears may parallel those of the publics'.
After a second Boeing 737 crashed in 1994 killing all 132 on board, many pilots
reported being fearful of the airplane. The first accident involving the same aircraft
type occurred in March 1991. United Airlines Flight 583 crashed in Colorado
Springs, CO, resulting in 25 deaths, and went unsolved. Then when USAir Flight
427 crashed in Pittsburgh, PA, pilots were fearful of their ability to fly the aircraft.
My interviews with Boeing accident investigators, following the Pittsburgh accident,
showed that they too had fears about their airplane.
It was beyond rational thought that an airplane in this day and time could
seemingly fall out of the sky, as these two seemed to have done. Reputed to be
the longest investigation in US aviation history, probable cause of the US Air Flight
427 was finally found to be the rudder system and has since then been re-designed.
The United Airlines flight investigation was re-opened, and probable cause now also
attributed to the rudder system. The lengthy investigation resulted in a lot of concern
about the safety of that aircraft type among seasoned aviation professionals, as well
that were activated by the swampy water of the crash site.
While questions about the cause of the crash of the United Airlines Flight 583 in
Colorado Springs never abated, the accident involving the US Air 737 intensified the
anxiety. Some organizational leaders chose to address the fears of their flight crews.
When counselors were available at check-in points for flight crew for confidential
‘talks’ before departure, there were good results. The counselors were not there to
talk anyone into flying, but were there to allow the employees to express their anxiety
and talk through the uncomfortable feelings about their own sense of safety.
As recent articles in this series have discussed, newer research on best practice for
supporting survivors of traumatic stress would indicate that formal interventions in
the first few days following the trauma can actually be harmful. However, providing
professional support for those who wish to see a professional helper where they
can speak freely about their concerns is always helpful—when the employee, as
with any survivor, chooses to engage.
Recognizing the needs of employees when they are expected to work in an
environment that previously seemed safe, yet, after a crisis may not, goes a long
way in helping them feel both valuable and validated. It also aids in their transition
back to work—and commitment to their long-term careers. While it is true that “the
show must go on,” and employees are counted on to do their part to keep the
operation running, leadership’s part includes taking care of those who are expected
to take care of the public.
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