Aircraft Accidents and Don Rickles

I already miss Don Rickles; the acerbic entertainer, who passed away at age 90, could take on anyone on their home turf.  His insults stuck like tacky tree sap: easy to laugh at yourself for getting on you, but nearly impossible to remove.  But what made him most appealing is he took on any subject and any person with a self-deprecating humor; he shot from his own vulnerabilities – subjects he knew nothing about – forcing his ‘victim’ to rise (or lower) themselves to his level.  As the James Bond Title song said, “Nobody does [did] it better.”

But, you can’t apply that ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ style to just anything.  I’m sure a Police Gun Range instructor can’t use it, nor can a Human Resources specialist running a class on Diversity; they could, but it might defeat the purpose.  In many positions, one can’t come at others with a caustic wit.  They also can’t speak from their own weakness.

I like instructing students – notice that I didn’t say teaching – there’s a difference.  To me, I associate instruction with training.  Teaching is telling students something they don’t know, e.g. teaching someone how to understand a new aircraft engine they have never seen before by breaking down all its components.  I can take the same new engine and instruct/train students on how to apply what they do know from experience, e.g. working on past engines, to apply to their understanding of what they need to know about the new engine, e.g. fuel control units, past and new.

This past week I instructed an aviation class where each of the students had been in the aviation industry for twenty or more years; it would have been presumptuous for me to ‘teach’ them anything.  However, I can tap their experience to instruct them on how to see a situation clearer.  I show them these things to make them better investigators, auditors, mechanics, inspectors, professionals.  You might say, that’s my super-power.

I was using my experience of working aircraft accident investigation to describe an accident – a maintenance-caused accident, specifically – in a way that focused their attention five steps up the line and away from an accident’s interpretation adopted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

Why would I be so arrogant as to think myself smarter than the NTSB and the FAA?  I don’t.  However, the person who investigated the accident I instructed my students on … well, that was me.  When I wrote the accident report, the NTSB adopted solely the parts they wanted, only pushing what they felt was necessary and ignoring five or six probable causes that were extremely timely and important.  The FAA, as a result, trusting to the NTSB, missed several important facts that showed up later in different accidents or incidents.

And that seems to be the trend with the NTSB, or so it appears to me: push what you’re comfortable saying was the problem, not necessarily THE problem.

I remember attending aircraft technician/Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) school; there were several instructors who had graduated, perhaps six months before I started classes.  I don’t normally object to this on principle; in the university/college environment, the taught becomes the teacher in a seamless progression that can take years, all the while gaining experience that is employed later on at the front of the class.

However, trade schools are different; these new A&P instructors experienced no progression, no build-up of experience, no discipline; they were just … POP! … made into instructors.  In an A&P trade school, where experience counts for everything important, the new instructors were inexperienced, their ability to teach was irrelevant (teaching directly from a textbook or death by Powerpoint); and their ‘war stories’ belonged to other teachers who lived them.

Most of all, they were unable to filter what was true from what was not true.

Let’s look at our Police Gun Range instructor; would one want someone who has never been in the field teaching our Police force how and when to shoot?  The purpose of instructing is to benefit one’s students with their experience and knowledge, not for the good times they’ll face, but for the bad.  You want an instructor who is level-headed; someone who can instill professionalism and a certain level of caution, not rush in where Angels fear to tread.

Instructing for aviation professionals is similar; take what experience you have and give it to others who can focus that knowledge in their own careers.  Take that valuable information and help others to use it wisely; to recognize problems, not attack them with ignorance.

But what if the inexperienced are running the class?  If the NTSB does not learn what is learnable, how can anyone benefit from the lessons unlearned from accidents?  If because the NTSB doesn’t bring the information forward and the aviation community can’t teach its inspectors, mechanics, managers, etc. how to look at the cause and effect of aviation errors, what does the industry benefit?  If textbooks are being written by the inexperienced, how do the aviation institutions of learning pass on to the next generation what they so desperately crave to make our skies safe?

Take accidents like Air Midwest 5481, National Airlines 102 or any others.  What is there that we can still learn?  What did the NTSB miss?  Why are we pursuing phantom problems that don’t answer the most important question: What were the real reasons they crashed?

Visualize if you would that the inexperienced instructors I spoke of at my A&P school become the course designers of the future without ever touching a real aircraft, never fixing a real aircraft problem.  If they write courses that lack Technical Accuracy, we in the industry have lost the high ground; we can’t cultivate young minds to think on their own; we have lost opportunities to learn lessons unlearned.  All the while aviation students are taught trivial ‘lessons’ in one of the most safety intensive industries in the United States, indeed, the world.

Imagine then, if these same inexperienced people, some day, design courses for teaching FAA Inspectors or NTSB Investigators; unproven course designers who don’t understand the subject matter or are simply blinded by their own pride.  Or worse, intent on their own agenda(s).  We will not only miss the chance to prevent accidents by missing the basic symptoms, we will have wasted years and lives figuring out where we had gone wrong to begin with.

The past is becoming the book unopened; the accidents are the silent screams for justice; and those passionate about safety are being ignored.

Don Rickles would probably have called some of these people ‘Hockey Pucks’, or some similar insult.  I would have liked to end up on a humorous note, but this isn’t funny.  Aviation needs to be serious about the training and instructing of safety.

P. S. Starting next month, I’m beginning a series of blogs aimed at instructing in ‘Lessons Unlearned’.  It won’t rely on drama like the Weather Channel’s ‘Why Planes Crash’ or National Geographic’s ‘Mayday’ series.  It, instead, will analyze some accidents where the important points were missed.  I will try to salvage the lessons unlearned.

It’s time.

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