ZERO dark thirty, Tongduchon Valley South Korea – minutes to target. Speed 420 knots, altitude 300 feet. A single carrier-based A6E Grumman Intruder points North surgically utilizing its terrain-following radar while threading rain-soaked valleys, fogged filled mountainous passes and low visibility scenarios on approach to the worlds’ most heavily defended border – the infamous 38th parallel. Aboard are 12 Mk-82 500 lbs. bombs. This is serious business; surface-to-air North Korean radars are active as real-world threats and imminent physical dangers. Massive geo-political turmoil awaits any navigational, procedural or performance errors. It’s been thundering since the beginning of the hi-speed/low altitude “live-fire” training mission (theoretically perfect weather for these aircrafts’ mission profile of low -level, interdiction), yet the closer the target (USAF Nightmare bombing complex) looms, the worse the weather becomes. Now continuous lightning bolts clearly illuminate the silhouette of the jet and its two aircrew. One of them has started to sweat. In the left seat is a young Naval Aviator, a relatively inexperienced, 26-year old who as the pilot and the only manipulator of the flight controls is operationally responsible for the overall safety of flight. In the right seat as the Bombardier-Navigator is the well-seasoned senior officer and Vietnam war hero. One prefers to terminate the flight in the interest of safety, adherence to existing rules and compliance with standard operating procedures. The other crew member through body language, grunts, hand signals and time-consuming silent deferrals intends to “press on and get the mission done”. It becomes obvious that a covert difference of opinion permeates the cockpit infusing in its wake the unmistakable aroma of deference.
Deference is the condition of submitting to the espoused, legitimate influence of one’s superior or superiors. It is a yielding or submitting to the judgment of a recognized superior, out of respect or reverence. Deference has been studied extensively by political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists. Yet, most cogent to our field of aviation this definition harvests a myriad of obscured cobwebs, mouse traps, and decision-altering hand grenades.
Ground zero for detonation is based on simple differences in expectation – “Is what I expect to happen what’s really going on – are we on the same page”? At specific critical moments in time and space, any misunderstandings, assumptions, incapacities or neglect will quickly, easily and forcibly impale chards of failure and loss. While these landmines can be potentially embedded in every flight we take, the mere fact that our judgments can be altered by an outside source (someone who either covertly or with brazen gusto applies undue pressure by enforcing early time constraints and task saturations) can easily deliver significant deviations from standard operating policies and procedures. Additionally, it sets a scenario where the breakdown of effective of communication will without doubt, alter the basic chemical composition of our own, personal decision-making process.
In my life-long professional quest to become more proficient at this human factor genre, I’ve called on my experience and research to label four of them. Analogous to petri dishes, they are perfect culture-creating trays cogent to the possible misapplication of deference: leader/follower relationships, communication skills, situational awareness and decision-making.
Leader/follower – It starts on day one and it continues on every single flight. As a participant on both sides of this equation I can clearly identify with the specific roles whose effective fulfillment will eventually dictate mission accomplishment and more importantly assure the safety of flight. I have always done my best to establish clear lines which unambiguously demarcate areas of responsibility and more importantly cement that final authority. These must be identified, understood, agreed upon and adhered to, “prior to leaving earth”. As the leader, I must set the tone from the very beginning and must be consistent – if I’m at the flight controls then I make that final decision. if I am not – then I willingly grant the authority to whomever is working the stick, rudder and throttles; ensuring that the pilot does feel completely comfortable with his/her own decision-making. Written policy and procedural manuals are useful tools that can be often referenced. Yet, I found out that for me, nothing beats: “Hey, just want to remind you that today our safety is in your hands, let’s do what’s right. If you have any questions, doubts or concerns, please speak up – let me know right away, don’t forget – I’ll back you up”. This simple phrase, spoken clearly and unequivocally at the beginning of each and every flight has been my decades-long number one countermeasure against the misinterpretation of deference.
Communication – Clear, concise, unambiguous, timely – solution driven. Remember – “The greater the stress level, the more difficult communication will be”. In the presence of improper deference, accident histories clearly identify breakdowns, misunderstandings and assumptions. Clear examples are “trial balloons” – these are generally ambiguous hints, dangling participles or incomplete statements issued by the individual with the concern (in hope that the person(s) they are addressing picks up on their trend and properly interprets their meaning, all along not getting their feelings hurt or not feeling disrespected). More often than not, those “trial balloons” are in fact either misunderstood or ignored. They also eat up precious time. Keep it basic, keep it timely, try your very best to offer solutions and/or proffer options regarding your past, existing or upcoming dilemmas. Don’t just state the problem, give yourself a way out! I have always utilized key phrases such as “I’m concerned or I’m uncomfortable” as sacrosanct statements which for me, identify serious situations. If those words are spoken, it’s time for all of us to pay attention. More importantly as the person at the controls, I have to know well before the firecracker has been lit, that I can speak up without being judged. Also be cognizant of verbal (tone/inflection/interruptions/volume) and non-verbal (body language/eye contact) feedback which may very well deliver a much stronger message. Make the message the luminous star of your statement. Focus on what is right not who is right! As the listener, I always make the extra effort to validate any concerns, it could very well save our lives.
Situational awareness – Is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status. It’s a mouthful for sure, and what makes it even more difficult to master is its ever-changing nature. In simpler terms, it’s just “pattern recognition, a been there-done that” mantra. In familiar territories, we can easily, quickly and accurately adapt. Yet in unchartered waters or at the crest of a tsunami (despite our valiant and best efforts to “find our way”), the very last thing we need is the feeling (perceptive and/or real) that an aroma lingers potentially affecting our final outcome, especially an aroma that has a direct effect on our livelihood. Interestingly enough accident histories show that nearly always significant clues are available (in time) to recognize and recover – they also clearly identify errors in judgment as the leading cause of accidents, followed closely by those that are skill-based. Furthermore, the cognitive nature of the analysis required in gaining and maintaining S.A. utilizes both short-term and long-term memory banks, both of which are finite. Both are negatively affected by the bilateral stresses of criticality and time. The more complex the solution to the puzzle is, the more difficult the process will be. And as discretionary time counts down, the malignancies of “tunnel vision” are sure to yield their results. Accurate S.A. is useless if it cannot be converted into proper action, and that action has to be applied, at the right time, at the right place and in the right manner by the one “behind the wheel”. The thought that lingers is who truly is the author of that situational awareness at the moment of truth?
Decision making – Have you ever noticed how easy it is to know when someone else is making a bad decision? We find it easier to assess someone else’s choices because we all have two views of the world – an outside and an inside view. When you think about someone else’s situation you are able to consider it from the outside – using the rational side of your mind. But when “the shoe is on the other foot” and it is a decision affecting your life the emotional side does take over. Reality is everyone’s mental “default setting”. The role of emotion in decision making is grossly underrated in the aviation community – no doubt as “real men don’t talk about such things”. Yet there is an over-abundance of evidence that emotional decision making might very well be hard at work when we are listing our options in flight. It is emotion – how we feel – that “closes the deal”, that makes that final choice. The emotional reward will be the (perceived/real) approval of his/her peers and superiors will send his/her way after one has “hacked the mission” though the going was tough. As a leader, have you ever placed undue pressure on whomever is working the flight controls and throttle? Let us not forget that “good stories are often about bad decisions”. Emotion consumes logic and drives behavior, in all of its’ righteous glory often transforms into the enemy of analysis affecting how we do process information. We then are prone to misinterpret facts, commit framing errors, take shortcuts and align ourselves with confirmation bias. Emotion’s first cousin – subjective confidence – is the probability of being correct. It is not a judgement – it is a feeling – so, coherence of a story equals acceptance, while incoherence of a story equals denial. Surprisingly acceptance of a story (as gospel) actually requires very little quality and/or quantity, it’s much more about the strength of the delivery, emotion, passion, energy, confidence and enthusiasm with which it is transmitted. The landmine here is believing that it is actually true or correct. Trusting the validity of a story solely based on the confidence of self or others is a poor indicator of accuracy. Statistically you might as well flip a coin. So now, someone has made their mind up. Why are they saying what they are saying? Dissect it, get to the bottom of their reasoning. Ask yourself, if in fact you are in over your head. How really important is it to be right here, right now? Specifically what price are you willing to pay? It’s exactly these replies to each and every one of my questions that did in fact keep us safe on that pitch-black Korean night.
Forty-three years later this old and crusty Intruder pilot hammers away at these keys, and the sweat does come back. Why is that? Because even with amazing technological advances and modernization of aircraft, as well as a much greater skillset required of our aircrews, accidents still happen, and they do so for the same basic reasons. The dangerous aromas of deference are still taking their toll. Let us not allow those things that matter the least, affect the things that matter the most.
Mario Jimenez grew up in Colombia – South America and several Latin American countries. He has a B.S. in Business Administration from The University of Texas, El Paso. Additionally, he has attended numerous military and civilian schools in pursuit of professional development.
• From 1973 until 1983 he was a United States Marine Corps Officer as well as a Naval Aviator flying the A6 Intruder, the T2 Buckeye and the A4 Skyhawk in both land and sea environments.
• From 1983 until 2016 he was employed as an Airline Pilot with FedEx.
• He led as a Captain for 24 years and facilitated as an Instructor Pilot for 12 years.
• With FedEx he flew the Boeing 727, the McDonnell Douglas DC10 and the McDonnell Douglas MD11 freighters.
• He has served as an advisor to Utah Valley University’s Professional Pilot Program on training and educational philosophies.
• He has been a guest speaker at the Marriott School of Business – BYU
• He has a 38 + year flying career.
• 15,000 + flight hours
During a 5-year period at FedEx he led the Human Factors Performance Group within the Air Operations Division, responsible for specific cognitive training and evaluation of 4500+ pilots. Concurrently he served as a member of the Pilot Applicant Selection Team. He is the founder of Jetstream International – a consulting firm specializing in the circumnavigation of human error. He has been married to Barbara Bluth for 45 years, they have 3 children & 11 grandchildren. He and his family have resided in Utah since 1999.