Two Airline CEOs fly a plane which started their companies; should such cockpit insights contribute to SMS ?

Tilden & Dunkerley with Bellanca
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Two Airline Chief Executives Meet To Fly a Vintage Aircraft from 1929

 Two CEOs fly a vintage plane

 Scholars say pilot DNA is good for leadership

Risk Tolerance in SMS context

Chief Executive Officers of Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines flew a vintage 1929 Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker. The six-seat, single pilot aircraft flew for both Alaska and Hawaiian back in their early years. Both  CEOs, Brad Tilden and Mark Dunkerley, hold commercial pilot licenses and the British born Dunkerley  is a veteran performer at aerobatic competitions, and was the U.S. Northeast Region Advanced Aerobatic Champion in 2002. Neither worked their way to the C level from the cockpit.

In fact, this bird is the actual airplane, NC251M, that flew the first time for the Hawaiian 88 years ago. It had/has a maximum speed of 165 mph and a range of 675 miles.

The airline acquired and restored the Bellanca. The team of people, who brought the bit of history up to FAA standards, included many volunteers both from within and outside the company, and by sponsors Pratt & Whitney, manufacturer of the plane’s vintage engine, International Lease Finance Corporation, and Global Aerospace Services. It is now the only remaining Bellanca Pacemaker in the world that still flies.

Alaska Airlines’ log book from 1946 described this N-numbered aircraft as: “Typical bush airplane. Carries very large payload and is well adapted to freighting. Can operate out almost any field which has more than 1,200 feet or more runway clear of obstacles and with no more than 50-foot obstruction at either end. Passenger accommodations are out of date but adequate for bush operation. An excellent charter plane for hunting, fishing, and mining parties.”

This story points to an interesting exception to a general rule. They are both licensed pilots; few of their airline peers hold the same credentials. Seven of the nine CEOs on the A4A Board of Directors do not list flying experience; all seven primarily cite finance as their primary background. Delta Airlines, the major airline not a member of A4A, has a CEO with a finance background.

Eddie Rickenbacker (EA), C.E. Woolman (DL), CR Smith (AA),Howard Hughes (TW) and Juan Trippe (PA) were among a generation of airline founders who were also pilots, of varying competences and experiences. John Glenn (EA), Najeeb Halaby  (FAA and PA) and Bill Seawell (PA) are more recent examples of airline CEOs who were very capable pilots. Some might disagree about whether their aeronautical knowledge contributed to their management.

The Hawaiian Airlines Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker had a very special passenger for one of its air tours over O‘ahu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his wife, and son-in-law were treated to an air tour on the 80-year-old propliner, flown by Hawaiian's President and CEO Mark Dunkerley. Archbishop Tutu is seen above, seated in the co-pilot's seat.

Mark and Brad are both considered very capable CEOs and they have awards to confirm that generalization. Is there any basis to claim that their flying time has contributed to their airlines’ success? A Forbes article posits that there is some correlation between people who have become pilots and general corporate competence:

“…CEO pilot-led firms are more likely to engage in mergers and acquisitions, have more debt in their capital structure – meaning higher leverage and greater overall stock return volatility. Thus, thrill-seeking CEOs bring a certain element of this personality trait into the executive suite, as reflected by more aggressive corporate policies.

He also says that “piloting small aircraft as a hobby is more risky [sic] than driving a motorcycle, flying a helicopter, or even crop-dusting. Thus, the research shows, these CEOs exhibit a clear willingness to engage in risky activities for the sake of pleasure.” The professors state flatly that “the desire to fly is indicative of a genetic personality trait known as sensation seeking, which is associated with risk-taking behavior.”

This quote from author (Frederick E. Allen ) relies on Professors Matthew Cain of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and Stephen McKeon of the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business for this study. Allen cites Virgin’s CEO, Sir Richard Branson, as an excellent example of the “sensation seeking” success.

The current preferred method by the FAA, ICAO and all sophisticated CAAs is called Safety Management Systems depends on the accumulation of mega data and the analysis of those numbers. Trend lines extrapolated from these data bases are used to project risks which merit being addressed. SMS uses a 3600 interdisciplinary approach to rank those prospective problems, define alternative solutions, decide which best solves the risk and implement the chosen option.

The interdisciplinary technique seeks to include different perspectives— operations and maintenance to HR to legal to finance and…. The early history of SMS is replete with cases in which this “diagonal slice” structure has been most effective, bringing preventative responses to the identified risks in a timely and practical manner. Contributions from all of the disciplines have been a hallmark of this process.

Based on the pilots Tilden & Dunkerley successes (both airlines were early adopters of SMS) plus the Cain & McKeon thesis, these questions come to mind

  • Should the CEO’s job experience include some flying?
  • Does the sensation seeking” DNA add to the SMS process by adding flying experience to judgment involved in SMS?
  • Would a pilot/CEO be too risk tolerant in these discussions and should not be included?
  • Should a pilot/CEO not participate as a member of the 3600 team, but serve as an apostle of the SMS gospel, walking around the airline operational environment observing things which should be addressed?
  • To the contrary, financial wizards tend to live a life in which each option is mundanely assessed on a marginal utility curve. They almost intuitively calculate benefit/cost curves; so, might she/he be an ideal participant or adviser?
  • Or are these episodic-based conclusions not worth consideration?

Flying a Bellanca CH-300 is demonstration of a CEO’s insights into airline operations, but would SMS be better or worse with such a skill set involved in/available to SMS?




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