Want to know a pretty good way of killing yourself?
Fly an aircraft long enough that you get lazy, let your standards slip and do something stupid.
Highly skilled jobs need razor-sharp concentration but sometimes people lose focus.
Look at some sportsmen who got to the top of their game and then messed up, think Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong.
It wasn’t their technical skill that let them down, it was their standards.
I’m currently writing a book about decision-making and analysing how I have made decisions over the last 20 years of flying military fast jets.
Some decisions have been intuitive, ‘do or die’ ones and others have been long, drawn out rational thought processes. In flying training, decision-making is not something you are ever formally taught and tends to be wrapped up in the catch-all of ‘airmanship’.
‘Airmanship covers a broad range of desirable behaviours and abilities in an aviator. It is not simply a measure of skill or technique, but also a measure of a pilot’s awareness of the aircraft, the environment in which it operates, and of his own capabilities.’
Although I might have hinted at ‘skill-fade’ as a precursor to a pilot’s untimely demise, awareness, environment and capability also play a part.
I tend to fly less than I used to as now my primary role is office based. I make sure that contractors give the RAF the aircraft they’ve promised to deliver, on time and to the required specifications. What this means, however, is that when I do fly, I tend to see a ‘snapshot’ of flying that was previously not available to me when I was doing it full-time.
And this interests me a lot.
It interests me because many things that I once took for granted, now make me think a little deeper. I ask the question ‘Why?’ a lot and in my, soon to be published, internationally acclaimed and obviously bestselling book on decision-making*, I have a whole chapter on identifying the decision you have to make and asking ‘why’ you have to make it.
When I was flying full-time, I was responsible for upholding the flying standards on the RAF’s largest fast jet squadron for all student and instructor pilots. The squadron is bigger than the UK’s entire Tornado GR4 force combined; there is some serious talent knocking about there and I had to make sure that everybody was flying to the same high level.
But there has always been a problem with flying aircraft that is still not universal acknowledged and has never been fully resolved.
There has to be a pilot.
And until Elon Musk buys Airbus and removes the pilot from the loop entirely, pilots will still be required to fly aircraft and this is a problem.
It’s a problem because pilots are humans and, just like humans, pilots can also be dicks.
Pilots can let their fitness slip, they can have a poor diet, they can lose their concentration at critical times, they can be affected by what they’ve heard on the news that morning, they can get angry at management or have a row with their partner before coming to work – in short, pilots, like everybody else in the world, can have bad days.
Sometimes I fly with a pilot who is having a bad day.
In aviation we brief that we don’t take our personal life into the cockpit and if there is one thing that pilots are very good at it is compartmentalising those emotions and leaving them at home. But, sometimes a pilot will go flying when they are not 100%, maybe they are operating in the early 90%s or late 80s – still operating as a flying ninja warrior, just not one who has a post-graduate degree in it from an Ivy league university.
Last week, I had a bad day.
I made a mistake that could have left me embarrassed and would have seen me landing below the minimum fuel that I needed to return to my base with.
I pushed my fuel usage at the back end of a sortie so that a pilot in another aircraft could complete a serial that I was supporting.
There was just one run left and although my jet told me that it wanted to go home, I overrode it and told it that I knew best.
After the run, and upon closing the throttle and pointing my jet towards the airfield, I did some maths and thought ‘Yep, the jet did know best – you’ll be lucky to get away with this one.’
In short, I had been a dick.
I did eventually land with the exact amount of fuel required, to the kilogram in fact, but it took every bit of skill and luck that I could muster in order to do so.
But I learnt a valuable lesson.
My standards were slipping and, as an aviator, I realised that it was a chapter of a book that has been left unwritten by too many dead pilots over the last few years.
We all have standards.
From whether you never leave the house without a tie to cleaning your children’s faces before they go to school, we all have a level that we refuse to allow ourselves to fall below.
I’m sure you can see people’s standards being eroded in your workplace, just look around you. The girl who is having a muffin and coke for lunch, the boss who has started to come into meetings late or the guy who is skipping the gym and putting on weight.
When you allow your standards to slip you are effectively allowing yourself to be ‘less awesome’. You are approving of your own poor behaviour and saying, ‘I’m going to let myself down today.’
It is normally a result of short-term thinking and we are all guilty of it.
I recently flew with a student who did something that I see a lot, it was a very minor error and normally I would have wrapped it up with other aspects of the flight and just debriefed it as ‘one of those things’.
But this time I didn’t want to let it go so easily.
We have some very talented young pilots on the squadron at the moment, which is a good thing as we have some complicated aircraft coming into Service and need good girls and guys to fly them. But the aircraft we now send our students onto are all single-seat, no other crew member, and they are all capable of feeding the pilot a tonne of information. Technology means that flying the aircraft has now become less of a challenge – information management and decision-making are the new priorities.
Ever been in a rush to leave the house and forgotten the car keys?
Tried to find a parking space and had to turn the radio off?
That’s because you are task-saturated and your mind can’t concentrate on the thing you want to do.
That’s what happens in a busy single-seat cockpit when information overload starts to occur.
Except you are flying an aircraft.
And it is trying to kill you.
My student’s mistake was one that I also see a lot of instructors make – all he did was read back an altimeter pressure setting that air traffic had asked him to set before he had actually set it.
‘Victor 61 set QFE 1034’
‘1034 set, Victor 61’
…and then he set the altimeter.
‘What’s the big deal?’ you ask, and to the uninitiated it really doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Look at it like telling your boss that you’ve done that thing he asked you to do and then rushing back to your desk to do it but getting distracted by the hot girl in accounts and forgetting all about it.
It just results in some aspect of ‘badness’ and, in all honesty, my student’s jet wasn’t going to explode because he had failed to do this one small thing.
Not yet, anyway.
But what he didn’t realise he was doing, and here’s the real lesson, was that he was purposely and intentionally eroding his own safety processes. He was disregarding the things he did that were keeping him safe now and reducing to his ability to keep himself safe in the future.
And you know what that is called?
We often say that pilots start with a bucket of luck and a bucket of experience. The key to staying alive is to fill the experience bucket before the luck one runs out.
In flying training we often joked that you had to be ‘gash to be good’ which meant that you had to make your flying look effortless, easy – cavalier even. You had to cut corners, mix events and shortcut well respected processes. It was our homage to some very old and bold senior Naval pilots we knew when we were young Naval Officer learning to fly.
‘Gash – UK military term for doing things poorly.’
Of course, we all knew the truth.
To look as good as the ‘bigger’ pilots and to make it seem so effortless, you needed to be anything but gash. It took years of conscious, disciplined hard work and making sure that everything you did was deliberate and safe.
Those early years were where you started filling up the experience bucket.
‘Truly superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations where they might have to use their superior skills.’
Flying is all done in the head. Yes the hands and feet move about a lot but it’s the head that is telling them what to do.
And the more you do something, the more familiar it gets.
The problem is that familiarity can make good habits deteriorate over time. Think about when you first got the job you are in now – you were probably excited, turned up on time and maybe even did extra work over lunch or in the evening. I bet you used to wear your best clothes when you first dated your spouse and now sweat pants and dirty t-shirts are the order of the day.
‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’
The more we do something, the more we are inclined to do it ‘less’ well.
In a single-seat aircraft there is nobody else there to check that you’ve done the thing well. That the gear is locked down, flaps are set, that your oxygen is functioning correctly or that you have enough fuel to get yourself home (‘my bad!’)
When you rush those checks, or pay them lip service, you are eroding your ability to remain safe in the longer term. You make it ‘OK’ to skip things, to do them later or to promise yourself that you’ll ‘look at them the next time’. You make these practises familiar and easier to process in the brain. It’s called ‘cognitive ease’, reduces the load on your thinking and this rapidly becomes the norm.
Humans will work to the path of least resistance, this is natural and we do it because we can conserve energy for something that might require it later, like hunting buffalo or starting a fire to heat our cave.
But that doesn’t make it right.
So here’s what I tell my students who find themselves demonstrating poor airmanship at this early stage. Look for the things that require NO talent and do them really well.
Flying takes skill, we all know that, but changing a radio frequency or pressure setting when told to do so, does not.
Do those things that require NO skill consistently well and you’ll add to your bag of experience which you might need later.
Like checking your child has lunch money or double-checking for motorcyclists before you pull out of a road junction.
You’ll build up routines that will be with you forever and will keep you alive when you are all alone, at night, over hostile territory and busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Be on time, wear smart clothes to work and be polite to people – all those things take NO effort but elevate you in the eyes of you peers and, more importantly, yourself. It allows you to work on the more complicated areas of your job knowing that you have a firm baseline from which to start.
‘If you cut corners on the road of experience you will likely end up in the ditch of despair.’
Doing the smaller things well is what makes the bigger people better.
*Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @timdavies_uk or @fastjetperform and I’ll let you know when the book drops *BOOM!*