‘I plan for the 6th order effect and I do it in about half a second.’
If I had heard that from anyone other than another fighter pilot, I would’ve laughed them out of the room but, from my buddy, Jim – I knew it was true.
I flown with him many times before. He was the kind of guy that radios weren’t invented for – he just didn’t need to use them. I knew what he was thinking before he’d even thought it because we’d both been trained in exactly the same way. We’d gone through flying training together and even served on the same front-line squadron; his actions were fluid, predictable and, when leading other aircraft in dynamic situations, was very much appreciated by other pilots.
But, Jim was in trouble.
He was explaining to a young Air Traffic Control Officer why he had gone against their direction – a serious offence.
He looked over at me – not for reassurance – he was annoyed and I understood why.
If you haven’t spent the last two decades flying military fast jets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that fighter pilots must have amazing reactions to do what they do.
But, it’s not true.
My reactions are probably just as good as yours, I’m now over 40 and they might even be worse. But, that’s OK as I do something that you probably don’t.
I know to ‘respond’ and not to ‘react’.
Years of instructing in flying training and exposure to situations that require critical thinking in demanding environments, have taught me that to ‘react’, is to die.
I’ve seen it countless times in young, inexperienced aviators and normally it’s because they haven’t had a plan for the event they’ve encountered.
- The junior pilot who fails to monitor his fuel usage on his early combat sorties and only just makes it back on fumes.
- The young instructor who, sensing something wrong with her aircraft, puts out a ‘MAYDAY’ call, forcing her to engage in a dialogue with air traffic and robbing her of cognitive capacity.
- Or, the student who flies into a cloud filled valley without thinking of an escape option.
A few years back, Jim and I were flying a low-level navigation route and working hard on a target run when we hit a bird…
The cockpit was silent.
Jim was flying, I was in the back-seat and, as the jet slowly climbed away from the ground, we could both feel it starting to shudder.
When a fighter jet starts to shake, it’s normally the sign of an engine that is deciding if it should stay as one big bit or become one million smaller bits, in a very short amount of time.
‘Looking…’ he called calmly from the front-seat as he set about trying to diagnose the emergency.
‘Prestwick is 320/15 miles.’ I replied, detailing our nearest airfield.
Sure enough, the shaking increased and pretty soon a big RED caption illuminated showing us that the engine was, indeed, trying to cook itself.
It’s the sort of thing it does that when a seagull attempts to fly-through the compressor blades at about 500 mph.
‘Surge, attempting relight.’ he calmly stated, informing me that the engine was no longer producing power and that he was shutting it down.
The only one we had…
…we’d just become a 6 tonne glider.
‘Roger.’ I replied as I got out the Flight Reference Cards checklist in anticipation of a full ‘Engine Relight’ drill.
I felt the throttle slam back to the ‘Cut-Off’, starving the engine of the fuel that was promoting it’s unhealthy state. As Jim pitched the jet’s nose high into the clear sky above, trading speed for height, I knew we were about to enter controlled airspace, unannounced.
And, that’s a bad thing.
‘Clear the flight path and nobody’s going to die,’ I thought – no need to distract Jim with this right now, he has more important things to do.
By now, all non-essential aircraft systems were being taken off-line as the aircraft prioritised its own survival. A smaller engine called a Gas Turbine Starter was automatically fired-up which would power the electrics and a tiny little windmill, called a Ram Air Turbine, was thrust into the airflow to drive the hydraulics which would keep us flying.
Engine RPM was falling, as was our airspeed which had reduced from 450 to 180 knots in just 30 seconds.
‘Let me know when you’re happy, Jim.’ I called.
‘OK, speed stable, RPM falling – go for it, buddy!’
And, with that I finally pressed the button.
‘MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, Victor Yankee Tango 61, MAYDAY.’
‘MAYDAY 61, this is Guard, steer 320 for Prestwick, 12 miles, call intentions,’ came the immediate reply.
‘MAYDAY 61 is a Hawk T1 out of RAF Valley, 2 Persons on Board, 12 miles south-east of Prestwick at 5,000 ft IN controlled airspace, squawking emergency, inbound for any runway – engine failure, attempting relight – standby.’
I’d asked ‘Guard’, the military UK emergency agency, to ‘standby’ to give us time to action the remaining drill. I knew that the controller would now phone Prestwick Air Traffic Control and tell them that they had an engine-less, six-tonne Hawk inbound with a couple of guys who were about to cancel their RSPB* memberships.
I could see that the engine RPM was stagnating below 20% and there probably wasn’t time for a full relight.
‘Harness – Tight and Locked, Visor – Down…’ I called as I started to run through the ‘Pre-meditated Ejection’ checklist.
‘RPM’s slowly climbing,’ said Jim as I too noted that the engine was indeed attempting to restart. If it failed, we’d be abandoning the aircraft and I could already see that Jim was turning towards an area of wasteland in anticipation.
‘MAYDAY 61, all runways at Prestwick available, crash crews on standby, contact Prestwick tower on this frequency.’
‘Well, that’s the engine almost back,’ called Jim from the front seat, ‘but I’m not convinced she wants to be back right now.’
‘OK, let’s go to Prestwick for tea,’ I replied, as the jet continued to vibrate it’s unhappiness to us both.
So, why didn’t we panic when our engine swallowed a Seagull and decided to throw a compressor blade out of the exhaust?
Because, we both had about 4,000 hours of military aviation between us and we knew that to react to the birdstrike could well have put us in a far worse state.
The first rule of any aircraft emergency is…
It sounds counter-intuitive but the key is just to ‘sit on your hands’ and observe what is happening. In the Tornado GR4, a spurious caption could be the beginning of something far more serious such as a rear-fuselage fire or an un-contained engine failure – to rush in could make things far worse.
What we are buying ourselves is ‘thinking time’.
If, on hearing the ‘BANG’ of the birdstrike, I’d jumped onto the radio and called for help, my world would have been immediately filled with multiple air traffic agencies offering their support. Every aircraft in the near vicinity, would also have offered to help.
Now, I’m dealing with a complicated emergency and also trying to talk to a lot of people who can do NOTHING to help me.
If the jet’s going to explode, it’s going to explode – there is nothing that air traffic can do that will stop that happening.
A reaction is instant.
It’s driven by the beliefs and biases of the unconscious mind. When you ‘react’ to something, that’s the unconscious mind jumping in, it doesn’t take into account long-term effects. It’s based on our necessity to survive from when we used to have to run from Sabre-Toothed Tigers and is there to keep us alive as part of our defence mechanism.
A ‘response’, however, is more thought-out. It’s takes into account information from our conscious and unconscious mind, balancing it all and weighing everything up. A response considers the longer-term events or, as Jim put it, the ‘4th, 5th and 6th order effects’.
Jim was programmed to ‘respond’, even if it meant the loss of the aircraft in the immediacy following the birdstrike but, it wasn’t just this that had saved the aircraft – Jim had something else on his side.
Jim had planned for a birdstrike long before he ever hit the bird.
Jim had thought about it when we had planned the flight 3 hours before. He had then explained in the pre-flight brief what he would do around various parts of the route should he hit a bird and what airfields he would use should he lose the engine.
It was something he’d practised in the simulator hundreds of times before.
Everything that happens in jet flying is planned. Every possible scenario has a prescribed response that has been thought about in the cold light of day, away from the pressures of the cockpit – nothing is left to chance.
Jim HAD A PLAN.
Most people DON’T have a plan.
And, this means that when life happens to them, as it has a nasty habit of doing, people will ‘react’ – often causing the situation to worsen.
‘If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.’ – Yogi Berra
- The young man who decides to assault a guy who was ‘chatting up’ his girlfriend, ending up with a custodial sentence from a court case that he never expected.
- The wife who posts her husbands infidelity all over social media thus making any chance at reconciliation, unlikely.
- Or, the middle-manager who tells his boss EXACTLY what he thinks of him before ending up at the Job Centre, the wrong side of 50, and with 10 years of a mortgage still left to pay.
Planning means to think things through before they happen – it means thinking about how you are going to respond to things.
If you are a little overweight and decide to start a new fitness regime of running first thing in the morning, you have a much higher chance of success if you lay out your running gear on your bedroom floor the night before.
It means that you are PLANNING to remove the ‘hassle’ factor in the morning.
When a young airman or woman goes through basic training, they will often get picked up for the smallest of things such as a button that is undone, a loose thread on their jumper or a bed that’s been poorly made.
They will complain about the pettiness of it all, they will get angry at being punished and they will wonder why their instructors don’t just concentrate on the things that ‘really’ matter, instead.
It’s only when they get into the later stages of training that they start to understand that, in order to do the more advanced things in the military, you have to have mastered the basics.
Because the details matter.
Paying attention to a button being undone means you’re more likely to check that the safety catch of your weapon is on when doing a forced night march in freezing cold rain at 3 in the morning.
It teaches you to think of the ‘what ifs’ or the ‘actions on’.
If my button is undone then the staff will punish us all and I won’t get to home at the weekend, everyone will hate me and my boyfriend will go to the pub without me and might meet someone else.
If I don’t check my safety catch on the range because I neglected the basics, I might fire a round off accidentally and kill one of my buddies.
It’s all about the planning – this is what is being taught by the instructors ‘pettiness’.
When the stoics, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, used to sit around thinking about whether to watch another YouTube video or build a Spotify playlist, they also liked to involve themselves in something called the ‘Premeditation of evils’ (or ‘premeditatio malorum’, if you’d prefer the Latin).
It’s also called the ‘Inversion Technique’ and is a process that gives prior consideration to events that might happen BEFORE they actually do happen.
- ‘What if my house floods, do I have anything that I’d need to save and do I have insurance?’
- ‘What if I fail to get the grades to get into my chosen university, do I have another one in mind?’
- ‘What if I lose my job, do I have enough money in reserve to live on whilst I find another?’
Thinking out these questions in advance allows you to ‘respond’ calmly to the event rather than ‘react’ inappropriately to it.
And, that’s pretty much what Jim had just ‘taught’ the young air traffic controller who had attempted to lecture him about not contacting them sooner and for flying into controlled airspace, unannounced.
Next time you’re in the office and feel the need to ‘react’ to something someone’s done, just think about two experienced pilots in a badly damaged aircraft, responding to a serious emergency.
Breathe and be aware of your breathing, it calms you down – take a step back, learn all the facts and assess.
Use language to defuse the situation – ‘I will have to think about how to RESPOND to that.’
Be aware of the other person, you don’t know what kind of day they are having – don’t jump in with solutions, just allow the moment to pass – then you can respond.
Think about events that might cause you to ‘react’ and plan for them.
If you don’t plan your life, I guarantee someone will plan it for you!
So, now you know why you don’t need quick reactions to be a fighter pilot and that ‘to react’ will often be the wrong thing to do. Learn to plan ahead and to ‘respond’ to life’s difficulties and you’ll minimise your chance of failure and maximise your chance of having a well-balanced and successful life.
‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.’ – Benjamin Franklin
*Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (I think I’ve been banned…)