Last Saturday was not a good day for transportation, but for once the bad news was not about aviation. An immense cruise ship — the Costa Concordia — capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the west coast of Italy where rocks near the shore sliced open the ship’s hull with Titanic-like fury. Most of the 4,200 people are accounted for and while nearly a dozen people lost their lives, any losses were needless and simply compounded by some actions of the crew.
The captain told the BBC and Italian television that he believed they were sailing a few hundred meters from where the rocks were charted and that he had no idea why the ship ran aground. Surprisingly, large ships use the same sort of GPS guidance and autopilot systems we see on board an aircraft, systems designed to prevent just such a mishap … unless of course some human gets in the way. On board, cell phone videos captured the panic among the passengers as they sought safety.
The real story of this accident though is how a ship of this size in 2012 could run aground despite millions of dollars of safety equipment designed to prevent just such an accident. Back to the crew again as reports have emerged that Captain Francesco Schettino and many of his staff abandoned ship before all the passengers were accounted for. So it would it would seem that the captain was either lying through is teeth or was simply incompetent. The captain has been jailed adding fuel to the international debate of personal liability for crew negligence in such a crisis. Not all violations are quite so clear.
The aviation industry has seen such cases, mostly outside the United States. Continental Airlines is still appealing a European court’s decision that held them liable for a part that fell from a DC-10 during a July, 2000 takeoff from Paris CDG. That part fell to the runway in the path of a departing Concorde and is claimed to be responsible for the firery chain of events that ended with the crash of Air France 4590, near Paris Le Bourget.
There are certainly parallels of responsibility in aviation, for even the pilot of a Cessna 150 or a Piper Warrior. We are always responsible for the safety of all aboard their aircraft. Like the soldier’s creed — “Never leave behind a fallen comrade” — as pilots, as human beings, we owe it to the people we fly to give our last breath if need be to save people who put their trust in us.
All too often in flight training, the idea of responsibility focuses on how to navigate, how to communicate and how to operate the aircraft itself. I NEVER remember a discussion about responsibility in any aspect of my flight training, perhaps because most people assumed that sort of talk was unnecessary.
But watching the behavior of Captain Schettino and some of his crew as they scrambled ashore knowing there were still many people unaccounted for is simply unconscionable, so perhaps we do need a reminder.
When people climb aboard your aircraft, be it a two-place trainer, a Cirrus SR-22, a Falcon, or a A380, they’re entrusting you, the Pilot in Command, with their lives and the lives of the people they love. We owe it to all never to forget that awesome responsibility … ever.