Lessons from the cockpit: RAF pilot turned airline captain shares insights on human factors - CILT(UK)
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Lessons from the cockpit: RAF pilot turned airline captain shares insights on human factors

12 June 2024/Categories: Industry News, Active Travel & Travel Planning, Aviation, Logistics & Supply Chain


In the high-stakes world of aviation and healthcare, where split-second decisions can mean the difference between life and death, one man's journey offers invaluable lessons on the importance of human factors. Matt Lindley, a former RAF pilot and current airline captain, has dedicated his career to understanding and mitigating the human errors that can occur in high-pressure environments. Lindley was also one of the first openly gay pilots in the RAF and shares his experience from having to conceal his sexuality to breaking those barriers.

Matt’s Journey

Lindley's passion for flying took flight at a young age, leading him to join the University Air Squadron at Birmingham while pursuing a degree in commerce. "The RAF had reeled me in," he admitted, recounting how the cadet scheme's flying experiences solidified his desire to become a pilot. However, his path was not without obstacles, as he faced a recruitment embargo during the Gulf War.

Undeterred, Lindley eventually joined the RAF, but concealed his sexuality due to the outright ban on gay personnel at the time. "We could have faced investigation, court martial, loss of pension/medals, and potentially military jail," he explained. This took a heavy toll on his mental health and performance initially. After brave individuals challenged the ban and got it overturned, Lindley was ultimately outed a year later, which he described as "an unpleasant experience." However, the RAF embraced him with acceptance and support. "The organisation wrapped me in cotton wool and it was a really positive experience in an odd way," he recalled, reflecting on the forces' journey towards inclusivity.

Serving during conflicts in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan presented immense challenges. Lindley emphasised the strains of extended deployments and being in constant proximity to crewmates. As a captain, he stressed the importance of personal time to maintain well-being and avoid strained relationships.

Lindley also served time with the Royal Squadron, transporting members of the Royal Family and government officials which instilled a profound sense of responsibility and decision-making skills. "As a junior Captain at 25 or 26, I was entrusted with flying the Head of State," he explained, recalling the privilege of the role.

Transitioning to commercial aviation, Lindley encountered a contrast from the military's decision-making style. "Initially, adapting to this new mindset was challenging," he admitted. "This transition taught me the value of collaboration and careful, measured decision-making in ensuring passenger safety."

The parrels between aviation and healthcare

Forming his own company, Propel Performance, Lindley drew parallels between aviation and healthcare, developing courses to help medical professionals minimise mistakes and reduce error rates in hospitals. "The concepts of hierarchy, decision-making, and communication in aviation are just as relevant in an operating theatre," he explained, emphasising the importance of tools like checklists and a culture of speaking up.

One personal experience, in which Lindley's ego-driven decision-making during a technical emergency led to a Mayday call, underscored the necessity of effective teamwork and communication. "This experience taught me to value my team's input, to slow down in critical situations, and to leave my ego on the tarmac," he reflected.

Lindley's insights are not merely theoretical; they are grounded in real-world experiences that have shaped his understanding of human factors.

Looking back on his diverse careers Matt recalled participating in two Royal flypasts over central London, including the Golden Jubilee, where he joined a formation of 50 aircraft, including Concorde and the Red Arrows.

"Flying over central London, my co-pilot took control for a moment so I could take in the view," Lindley reminisced. "Looking down The Mall, I saw thousands of people, flashlights from cameras flickering like stars. It was a sight I'll never forget."

These extraordinary experiences, combined with the challenges he faced throughout his career, have instilled in Lindley a deep appreciation for the crucial roles of human factors, teamwork, and open communication in mitigating errors and ensuring safety in high-risk environments.

As he shares his insights with healthcare professionals and others operating in high-pressure situations, Lindley's message is clear: technical skills alone are not enough. By understanding and addressing the human factors that can contribute to errors, we can save lives and create a culture of safety and excellence.

A full write up of the interview with Matt can be found in the June edition of Focus Magazine, click here. 

You can also listen to the full interview on the CILT UK Podcast page available on Spotify, click here.

Image credit, 360 Speakers and GD Media

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