A disaster can strike at any time. Due to the suddenness of the event, it generally leads to an initial period of uncertainty. If a disaster plan is in place, and is set in motion, the initial confusion starts subsiding. If there is no such plan, things can get out of hand very quickly with disastrous consequences. Therefore when disaster strikes, it is imperative that there is a sound, tested disaster recovery plan in place and a chain of command is clearly established.
Take the case of Air France flight 477 which crashed off the coast of Brazil when on a flight to Paris. Though Pilots are trained rigorously for emergency situations, this was a classic case of failure of the Chain of Command and operational factors that led to needless loss of lives.
Since the flight time on this route is over 13 hours, it is exceeds rest requirements for pilots. As a result, the Airbus 330 operates with two first officers and a captain. It is customary for one of the first officers to take the initial rest period followed by the captain and the other first office. Just prior to the captain taking his rest, they knew they would have rough weather to contend with. Despite this the captain decided to take the next rest period. When the flight ran into rough weather off the coast of Brazil, it was flying at approximately 30,000 feet.
The aircraft was being flown by the Second Officer, the pilot with the least experience. The pitot tubes froze and this led to wrong speed readings in the cock-pit. This triggered a lot of conflicting alarms and the Second Officer at some point chose to pitch the nose of the aircraft up to gain altitude, when he should have put the nose down to gain speed and prevent a stall. The plane went into a stall. At this critical juncture, both pilots should have been in sync in their thinking and actions. Cockpit voice recorders indicate that there was a clear lack of chain of command and each first officer was acting independently.
At this critical juncture the Captain entered the cockpit. He scanned the instruments and told the pilot on the right to pitch the nose down to gain speed. Incredible as it seems, the pilot on the left seat was pushing the controls down while the one on the right was doing just the opposite.
When the Captain left the cockpit for his rest, the first office who just came of a rest period took the seat on the left. This is traditionally the person who has command. However, voice recorders show that there was some confusion regarding this. While this may not be critical when the flight was operating smoothly, it had a profound effect in these circumstances.
This shows the importance of the Chain of Command in an emergency situation. Often when the Chain of Command is not clear, individual, un-coordinated action will follow and they may work at cross purposes.
A sound Disaster Recovery Plan will have a clear cut Chain of Command and all personnel involved in the plan will take orders from the person in charge and no one else. What will follow is coordinated action to recover from the Disaster.