Will "Back to Basics" Still Work? Leadership Aspects of Aircraft Accident Investigation in the Millennial Generation


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Will “Back to Basics” Still Work?

Leadership Aspects of Aircraft Accident Investigation in the Millennial Generation
Mont J. Smith, ISASI MO4782

Director, Safety – Air Transport Association

Washington, DC
Mr. Smith’s aviation safety/accident investigation career spans nearly 40 years. He is a former Coast Guard Aviator, graduate of the Army Aviation Safety Officer and Aviation Safety Program Management course at the University of Southern California, the Crash Survival Investigator’s course at Arizona State University, the USAF Jet Engine Accident Investigator’s course and the Aviation Command Safety course at Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey. Mr. Smith is an Airline Transport Pilot (airplane multi-engine land and rotorcraft-helicopter). He holds a Flight Engineer/Turboprop rating, type ratings in the L-382, G-159, DA-20, and SK-61, and an M.S. (Aeronautical Systems) from the University of West Florida.

Mitchell Morrison, CDR USCG

Executive Officer, Coast Guard Air Station

Sacramento, California

Mr. Morrison is an Airline Transport rated active-duty Coast Guard aviator with 28 years’ experience. He has directed four different aviation safety programs - spanning rescue helicopters to large transport airplanes. He graduated Naval Aviation Safety Officer training, the Air Force Board President’s course, and University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety certificate program. He has nine years adjunct faculty experience with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is a PhD candidate at Northcentral University’s school of Business and Technology Management; dissertation work includes phenomenological research into aviation teamwork used in healthcare to mitigate medical errors.

The authors examine generational differences and their influence on teamwork and decision-making in today’s multi-crew aircraft. The focus will be on biased thought processes, workload disposition, task prioritization, and cockpit communication/ coordination. The authors relate relevant literature to documentation from recent military and civil aircraft accidents, and advance a strategy for the investigator to detect possible human team performance degradation related to misaligned generational differences. ISASI members must appreciate the potential impact of generational differences on accident causation. Just as Crew Resource Management emerged in the 1980s when human behavioral experts recognized a clash between autocratic, authoritarian captains and their intimidated crews, renewed emphasis must be placed on understanding and compensating for generational differences. The study will explore differences between Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers, and Millennials and relate these factors in several case studies of recent accidents and incidents.

The aviation community has invested tens of millions of dollars on Crew Resource Management training since the 1980s. We declared victory over the stereotypical authoritarian Captain and the meek First Officer told to just read the checklist, wind the 8-day clock or watch the load meter. Situational awareness, assertive behavior and crew inclusion are some basic themes trainers used to flatten steep flight deck hierarchies and reduce accident rates.

What new threats abound in the commercial airline industry and military aviation - as latent and lethal to safety as we’d seen before? We suggest that generational differences influence learning, teamwork, leadership, and decision-making in today’s multi-crew aircraft. A common response to accidents in aviation organizations, large or small, is reminding flight crews, maintainers and support staff to return “back to basics.” What are aviation basics in the generational context? How do different generations learn, and what leadership styles are most appropriate? We suggest that when a leader asserts “back to basics,” the message sent, encoded, and received has a different meaning for each generational group.

As we embark upon our second century of aviation, a drastic shift in learning styles is underway. Managers are working to transform industrial-based systems with centralization, standardization, and interchangeability to knowledge-based systems with customization, creativity, and networks.(1) Because of technological influences, leaders in knowledge-based systems seek further adaptation toward competency-based training to mitigate gaps between “conceptual understanding to practical application.”(2) Bill Bottoms, Executive Vice President of Team SAI said, “students are tactile learners. They learn by touching…and for today’s young people, ’touching’ is playing a video game. They see the real world, in some ways, as an animated event.”(3)
A friend from the pilot training center at a major U.S. airline pointed us toward a second article in the February 2010 issue of the same magazine. Under the “Human Factors” column there was a short treatise entitled “Generational Hot Buttons.”(4) The author contends that generational diversity…“has significant implications for performance, management and, in the end, safety in aviation maintenance facilities.” He goes on to describe attributes of the latest generation, the age 28 and younger “Millennials,” who are surging into the workforce. Contrary to demographics quoted in this article, we discovered in later research that there are 78 million Millennials born between 1978 and 1996. (5)

Management theorist Peter Drucker suggested leadership styles vary between different people. An essay written by a German infantry officer in 1933 while attending the U.S. Army’s advanced course at Fort Benning supports Drucker’s assertion: CAPT Adolph von Schell wrote, “We must know the probable reaction of the individual and the means by which we can influence the reaction.”(6) Understanding how aviation professionals tend to respond based on their generational group may assist investigators in accident prevention efforts.

Generational Groups
Experts generally agree there are three generations currently at work in America, with a fourth on the way. Espinoza, Ukleja and Rusch pointed out that “youth is the key period in which social generations are formed. The major events experienced during the time of formation are what shape the outlook on the world exhibited by that generation.”(7) Therein arises a collective memory – what is known in the literature as a “cohort effect.” Our three working generations were influenced by unique historical events with which you are familiar:
Boomers (80 million born 1946-1964) – Civil rights; Vietnam War; sexual revolution; Cold War/Russia, space travel; highest divorce rate and second marriages in history. Post-WWII babies grew up to be the radicals of the 70s and yuppies of the 80s. “The American Dream” was promised to them as children and they pursued it. They are perceived as greedy, materialistic and ambitious.
Generation X-ers (38 million born 1965 – 1977) – Watergate; energy crisis; Y2K; activism; corporate downsizing; end of Cold War; dual income families; single parents; first generation of latchkey kids, working moms, increased divorce rate. Their perceptions were shaped by having to fend for themselves at an early age, watching their politicians lie and their parents getting laid off. They came of age when the USA’s status as the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world was eroding. They are arguably the first generation that will not do as well financially as their parents.

Millennials (78 million born 1978 – 1996) – Digital media, child-focused world; school shootings; global terrorist activity; AIDS; 9/11 terrorist attack. They typically grew up as children of divorce. They hope to be the next great generation and to turn around all the “wrong” they see in the world today. They grew up more sheltered than any other generation, as parents strived to protect them from the evils of the world. They came of age in a period of economic expansion. Kept busy as kids, they were the first generation of children with schedules.

How did these events shape the attitudes and values of each generation? According to Espinoza et al., there are six major value-shaping influences that impact every generation as its members move through their formative years: family, education, morality, peers, spirituality, and culture.(8)
The Boomers, initially anti-war, anti-government and distrustful of their elders, matured into optimistic, transformational and team-oriented architects of change through work and involvement. Extremely loyal to their children, they remain committed to equal rights and opportunities. They question everything in their quest to “make a difference” because they believe anything is possible. They seek personal growth and gratification, but their philosophy is “spend now; worry later.”
The Gen X-ers seek fun, work-life balance, diversity and informality. They are highly educated, entrepreneurial, and self-reliant. Despite high job expectations, they are suspicious of boomer values, lack organizational loyalty and tend to be skeptical or cynical. They are independent, pragmatic, techno-literate, and tend to think globally.
Millennials are the most-educated generation - achievers and avid consumers who want it now! They are self-confident, optimistic, realistic and “street smart.” They demand diversity, tolerance, and sociability. They are techno-savvy, hotly competitive and crave personal attention. They want to have extreme fun and at the same time “make a difference.” Spiritual and moral, they are members of the global community.(9)
Why is there a potential clash of values that could affect workplace performance? Here’s what commercial aviation managers often say about the Millennials:

  • These workers need constant hand-holding and cheerleading
  • They don’t have the work ethic of older generations

  • They’re constantly asking why things are done a certain way

  • They’re overly confident but tend to crumble or become defensive when given negative feedback

  • When paired with a Gen X manager, who is typically defined by a strong sense of independence (wants to be given a job, left alone to do it, and expects those he manages to work the same way) the result is often frustration and misunderstanding on both sides.

Although the two groups share the common goal of making a difference, “Boomers live to work, whereas Millennials work to live.”(10) “Each generation brings different values, different approaches, different expectations to the flight department,” said Sheryl Barden, president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International and also a member of the National Business Aircraft Association Corporate Aviation Management Committee. “In order to run safe and effective operations, we are called upon to have a very structured culture in the flight department. In many ways that’s a Baby Boomer culture (11), so securing the buy-in of younger professionals can be a challenge. Xers and Millennials tend to be more concerned with quality of life and they tend to need more recognition to keep them engaged, which can be off-putting to managers of earlier generations,” said Barden, “But they bring incredible skills and innovation to the teams they join.”(12) Bing-You and Trowbridge discussed feedback styles with Millennials, who crave positive affirmation but may respond defensively.(13)

Individual Analysis of Recent Mishaps


Air Midwest

Pinnacle Airlines

Pinnacle Airlines

Empire Airlines

Colgan Air

Navy MH-60R


January 8, 2003

October 14, 2004

April 12, 2007

January 27, 2009

February 12, 2009

October 13, 2010

Flight Number







Aircraft Type

Beechcraft 1900D



Canadair Regional Jet CL600-2B19

ATR  42‐320



Sikorsky MH-60R

Captain Age

25 - M

31 - X

27 - M

52 - B

47 - B

UNK LT (30?) - M

F.O. Age

27 - X

23 - M

28 - M

26 - M

24 - M

UNK LT (30?) - M

Probable Cause

Loss of Control

Unprofessional Behavior

Deviation from S.O.P

Failure to Monitor

Deviation from S.O.P.

Unprofessional Behavior (assumed)

Contributing Factor

Maintenance Error

Deviation from S.O.P.

Impaired Judgment

Deviation from S.O.P.

Failure to Monitor

Deviation from S.O.P. (assumed)

Captain TPT







Captain PIC Time in Type







Captain Role







Captain Traits

  • Good Knowledge

  • Good Judgment

  • Thorough

  • Methodical

  • Good A/C Control

  • Involved F/Os (allowed to review paperwork & ask questions)

  • Poor checklist discipline

  • Sloppy checklist usage

  • Chose Incorrect S.O.P.s

  • Poor critical decision-making & judgment.

  • Professional

  • Knowledgeable

  • Approachable

  • Polite

  • good pilot with strong teaching abilities

  • willingness to help
  • Highly experienced

  • Icing experience

  • Cut corners

  • Seemed rushed

  • Limited briefings

  • Easily agitated

  • FO comfortable speaking up to him, if necessary

  • Sought FO input

  • very good decision making abilities

  • Methodical and meticulous

  • Handled A/C well

  • Used checklists

  • No missed callouts

  • Relaxed cockpit

  • Observed sterile cockpit rule.

  • Trouble with Q400 FMS - Not unusual

  • Thought Q400 workload less than Saab 340









FO Time-Type







FO Role







FO Traits

  • Talented

  • Precise

  • Attentive to detail

  • Good Communicator

  • Good Situation Awareness

  • Good Aircraft Knowledge

  • Confident

  • Good with checklists

  • Asked questions if he did not understand something

  • Average first officer

  • No curiosity about flying at 41,000 feet

  • Pleasant person

  • Dedicated student

  • Flying skills commensurate with flight time

  • Normal progression IOE

  • Above average Flying skill

  • Below average airplane systems & company S.O.P.

  • Average skills

  • Methodical about using checklists

  • Non-confrontational

  • Good CRM skills

  • Speaks up

  • Asks a lot of questions

  • Needs “More hands-on flying of airplane”

  • Good knowledge of airplane

  • Sharp, assertive & thorough

  • Avg to above avg skill; above avg tech knowledge

  • Always ahead of aircraft

  • Crosschecks actions

  • CA upgradeable


CVR Dialogue







Mindful of the caveat against stereotyping, we went looking for evidence of generational pre-dispositions, attitudes, behaviors and possible discord in a sample of one military and five commercial aviation accidents occurring from 2004 to 2010, as twenty-something Millennials began to populate the pilot workforce in ever-increasing numbers. We developed a spreadsheet (Table 1) based on National Transportation Safety Board investigations of these accidents and cross-referenced experience metrics, observed behavior, and implications from Cockpit Voice Recorder transcripts with the Campus Market Expo’s Generational Differences Chart.(14)

Table 1.
Regarding the military event, we did not have access to the formal report, so we used publicly available information garnered from multiple sources.
The NTSB typically approaches the investigation using a “party” system, and a work group process. The Operations and Human Factors Groups typically review Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) and Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs), as well as collecting information on flight crewmembers, such as logged flight time, training and check flight histories, recency of experience, prior crew rest and overall performance. In addition, they query fellow pilots and managers (check airmen, chief pilots, simulator instructors, etc.) on their observations and opinions related to the pilot’s character and competence. Although the latter qualities are subjective and can be influenced by reporting bias, they help the investigator form a more complete picture of the individual and a possible pre-disposition.
The picture is a composite of subtle behaviors that may be evident in the dialogue on the CVR, the behavioral chain of events leading up to the event (non-sterile cockpit, lack of checklist discipline, non-adherence to Standard Operating Procedure, violation of Federal Air Regulation(s), deviation from flight clearance, etc.), and generational influences.


Agroup 18ir Midwest Flight 548 (14) involved a loss of pitch control on takeoff from Charlotte, NC on January 8, 2003. The Captain was a Millennial, age 25, and the First Officer was barely a Gen X-er (by 2 years), at age 27. The contributing factors in the accident were maintenance-related, aggravated by post-accident discovery of improper average passenger weight/baggage assumptions in the FAA Advisory Circular governing an approved weight and balance program.

The Captain, pilot flying, had substantial total pilot time (2,790 hours) for her age and significant Pilot-in-Command time (1,100 hours) in type. The First Officer had an appropriate level of total flight time (1,096 hours) and time in type (706 hours). The Captain was recognized by peers and superiors to possess good knowledge, judgment and aircraft control. In addition, she was characterized as “methodical” and took extra care to “involve” her First Officers by asking them to review the flight paperwork and encouraging them to ask questions. The First Officer was described as having good aircraft knowledge and being talented, precise, and a good communicator. In addition, he had good situation awareness and attention to detail.
The flight began with a good discussion of the load manifest. The aircraft was loaded to the prescribed limit for operating weight and the First Officer raised a question of when to use “child weights.” The Captain’s response (not shown in its entirety) re-affirmed that adult weight could be used for the single child onboard, a cautious approach for weight and balance purposes, but the child needed to be depicted as such on company paperwork. After clearance to taxi to spot 2 by ramp control, the First Officer engaged the Captain in non-pertinent conversation regarding flight scheduling. This was a violation of the “sterile cockpit” rule, FAR 121.542. The FO retained situation awareness and announced “taxi checklist.” After responding to the altimeter cross-check, the Captain acknowledged losing situation awareness by asking, “We’re goin’ to spot two, correct?” All other checklist responses were crisp and precise. The Captain announced she would take the first leg, and briefed bug speeds for takeoff and rejected takeoff procedures.

The FO initiated more extraneous conversation about the TOLD card and contacted ground control for taxi clearance. When ground control asked them to stand by, the Captain commented idly about a passing Gulfstream jet. The FO commented, “You just wanna fly a jet. I don’t blame you.” Technically they are holding at spot 2, and not taxiing, so this is not a sterile cockpit violation. They then received a clearance to taxi to runway 18R. During the long taxi, the FO initiated non-pertinent conversation regarding the controller’s possible identity, the stability of his seat height adjustment mechanism, the lack of e-mail concerning a pilot union negotiating session on the previous day, and his acquisition of a special e-mail alert sound file for his computer.

The Captain finally called for the Before Takeoff to the Line checklist. The checklist responses were once again very precise and crisp. The FO initiated idle conversation about the weather and fixated on an engine outlet, wondering what came out of the orifice. Tower issued a “position and hold” clearance that the FO read back, and the FO completed the “below the line” items on the Before Takeoff to the Line checklist…transponder, bleed air, and exterior lights. He announced “Before Takeoff Checklist complete” and cleared the aircraft to the right as the Captain taxied onto the runway. They experienced jet blast from another aircraft ahead of them on takeoff roll. While awaiting takeoff clearance, the Captain initiated a non-pertinent discussion regarding doughnuts. After takeoff clearance was received, the procedures and call-outs were satisfactory until event initiation.
Attributes of the Millennial Captain and First Officer:

  • This crew was “at ease in a team” (net-centric team players)

  • The FO demonstrated his attachment to gadgets (his e-mail alert)

  • Both pilots were “high speed stimulus junkies” (eager to get to jets)

  • Both pilots were sociable – making workplace friends and loyal to their peers

  • The Captain willingly gave feedback on “child weights”

  • The FO had a strong sense of entitlement; wanted a friendly, scheduled life

  • Both Captain and FO were, at various times, unfocused on tasks at hand or situation awareness

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