Distraction Free Reading

Is the Captain Crazy? Am I In Charge?

Probably everyone reading this has had the experience of receiving a command or an instruction from a legitimate authority that elicits the response: “Are they out of their minds?”

If it is a bureaucratic authority, like the IRS, reflection suggests that there is no “they” to have a mind that they could be out of. This kind of authority is the result of a code of rules that is not monitored for consistency, and there may be no one who is charged with determining whether the application of a particular rule makes sense. This is the authority of the faceless “They”.

But there is the even more frightening situation in which one’s manager issues an order which makes no sense, or which appears to be operating in a different universe. (As a linguist, I note the existence of a lexical item for one particular style of managerial insanity: the “bring me a rock” strategy.)

But this is “insanity” used as a metaphor, hyperbole to indicate ordinary difficult or confused situations. What about real insanity? What is the authority structure in such a case? Here is an example: the JetBlue 2012 incident on a flight from New York to Las Vegas, in which the captain actually did go crazy and rampaged first in the cockpit and then in the passenger cabin. (I use the colloquial term “go crazy”, rather than something more technical like “psychotic break” because no medical information was made public afterwards about the captain’s diagnosis.)

There were two flight crew members in the cockpit, the captain and the flight officer, his second in command. The formal authority structure is clear and explicit. In addition, the captain was a training captain: he was an experienced and respected officer who trains and certifies other pilots.

The flight began fairly normally. Somewhere in cruise phase, the captain started to talk “bizarrely”: “[he] began talking about religion, but his statements were not coherent. The Flight Officer became concerned when [the captain] said ‘things just don’t matter’, and then began to shut down his instruments, told the flight officer to stop communicating with Air Traffic Control, and told Air Traffic Control to shut up.” The quotes come from the affidavit taken by the FBI from the flight officer and cabin crew members, when the plane had made an emergency landing in Amarillo. (There is no transcript of the events in the cockpit, but the affidavit is fairly detailed.)

Aviation rules state that the second in command must take command if the captain becomes incapacitated. Before this incident, all the training that flight crews received in crew incapacitation dealt with physical incapacitation. (The most common types are cardiac issues and digestive problems.) Crews have not, to this point, received training in mental incapacitation, with the exception of possible cognitive impairment due to stroke.

In the JetBlue situation, it is the flight officer’s responsibility to decide that the captain is mentally incapacitated, and that he or she must take command. In some cases, the decision to take command is relatively obvious: the captain has died, is slumped over the controls, or has run to the rest room. In the case of mental impairment, the correct action is not obvious: at what point does bizarre talk and bizarre action become clear evidence that the captain is no longer able to be in charge?

For readers who may have The Cain Mutiny running in background as they consider this, it is important to note that relieving the captain of command is not a speech act: “Sir, I hereby relieve you of command.” It is a physical action: removing the captain from his seat.

In the JetBlue case, the flight officer first attempted to bring in aid by asking the captain if he should ask another captain, flying as a passenger, to join them in the cockpit. The captain refused this suggestion. Before the flight officer had to face the question of how to physically remove a captain who had formal authority, seniority and rank in the company, and who was considerably taller and heavier than the flight officer, the captain chose to leave the cockpit to use the rest room. At that point, the flight officer phoned the cabin crew to send in the off-duty pilot, and when he arrived, locked the door against the captain. Locking the captain out was the moment at which he definitively took command.

Most work on the nature of legitimate authority focuses on the question: Why should I obey an order? What is the nature of the authority relation that makes this a legitimate order? I discussed this issue in an earlier post on a mid-air collision caused by authority conflict: Why Should I Obey A Machine?.

The JetBlue case shows that there is another dimension to determining legitimacy of authority: determining the circumstances that I take charge. The JetBlue incident is a very unusual one, but surely there are analogous cases. Understanding the nature of authority requires that we find and analyze them.

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