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What Is Crew Resource Management?

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Crew Resource Management, commonly referred to as CRM, is a human factors concept pilots use to ensure that they use every available resource to help safely operate an aircraft. 

CRM emerged from a spate of high-profile aviation accidents in the 1970s, many of which may have been avoided had the flight crews worked better as a team. 

Put simply, crew resource management is teamwork. 

The ‘resources’ it refers to include everything available to a pilot during a flight—humans, hardware, and information. 

Here’s a look at how CRM training came to be and why it’s so important. 

The Beginnings of CRM

Like many things in aviation, the command hierarchy in the cockpit evolved from ships. As the pilot in command and the final authority, the captain is the senior officer on board. 

The second-in-command, copilot, or first officer would often be a much younger and less experienced pilot. 

In early aviation, it was not uncommon for the captain to expect the first officer to “keep quiet and do as you’re told.” This was often the cultural expectation, even if this wasn’t explicitly stated. This leadership style led to the term “sky god” or “sky king” for those captains who didn’t like to be challenged. 

pilots in the cockpit using crew resource management

But what happens if the captain disregards everything that other crew members have to say? A less experienced pilot is perfectly capable of noticing errors or anomalies that the captain might miss. 

No matter how many hours of flight time a captain has, it does not make them perfect. Having another set of eyes, ears, experiences, and opinions is the whole point of the multi-person cockpit. 

Ignoring the input of the second human in the cockpit—or creating a culture where they feel their input is unwelcome—is not in the mission’s best interests. Sometimes, the captain just isn’t as good or as smart as they think they are. 

One case study example is the 1978 crash of United Flight 173

The DC-8 was approaching Portland, Oregon when it experienced an abnormality with the landing gear. The plane entered a hold, and the captain worked on troubleshooting the problem for over an hour. 

The first officer and flight engineer tried to warn the captain of their low fuel level. 

The captain, however, only noticed when the engines began quitting. The plane crashed eight miles short of the runway. 

Crew Resource Management

After this and other incidents, NASA and the NTSB recommended implementing CRM training for aircrews. Early CRM was known as “Cockpit Resource Management.” 

This name, however, left out some valuable resources available to the cockpit crew, such as air traffic controllers, cabin crew, dispatchers, and maintenance personnel. 

To be more inclusive of all of these things, the name was updated to “Crew Resources Management.”

What Exactly Is Crew Resource Management?

According to the FAA, Crew Resource Management is the collection of the following individual skills.

  • Mission analysis
  • Leadership
  • Assertiveness
  • Decision making
  • Adaptability/flexibility
  • Communication
  • Situational Awareness

Crew Resource Management training is usually part of the ATP-CTP training course and further reinforced during airline indoc and recurrent training. 

CRM training for pilots is covered in FAA Advisory Circular 120-51E

Many of the fundamentals of CRM are built into the design of an airline’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). In this way, Crew Resource Management goes far beyond the training crews get.

It’s built into the system and part of every procedure they do. 

SRM vs CRM

When getting your Private, Instrument, and Commercial pilot certificates, you are seldom taught much about Crew Resource Management.

You start by learning to fly single-pilot aircraft that don’t have other crew members. 

To ensure you can safely fly these planes, you must demonstrate that you can do it alone. So, the focus is instead on SRM—Single-Pilot Resource Management. 

How is SRM different from CRM?

Crew resource management in a small plane

It’s not as different as you might imagine. While you might not have a copilot or flight engineer to work with, you still have air traffic controllers, dispatchers, and even mechanics. 

The whole point is to realize that you have many options (i.e., resources) available to you and to use them accordingly.

Specifically, the skills that makeup SRM are as follows.

  • Decision making
  • Task management
  • Automation management
  • Controlled flight into terrain awareness
  • Situational awareness

Crew Resource Management for All

CRM has become a foundational concept of human factors when flying in a multi-person aircraft. 

There have been many recent incidents in which the crews were commended for exercising outstanding CRM that led to a successful outcome, like US Airways Flight 1549’s landing of the A320 in the Hudson River after multiple bird strikes took out both engines, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson.” 

As with all human factors subjects, there’s always room for improvement. 

A lack of solid Crew Resource Management skills has been cited as a causal factor in recent major aviation accidents. 

Examples include Air France Flight 447 (A330), which stalled and crashed into the Atlantic, and Asiana Flight 214 (B777), which crashed short of the runway in San Francisco. 

Despite occasional lapses, improving Crew Resource Management is an aviation success story—it has demonstrably improved aviation safety worldwide. 

Not surprisingly, the fundamental concepts of CRM have extended beyond aviation. One example is medicine, where similar training and procedures encourage better teamwork in emergency rooms and during major surgeries.

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