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Keeping the ‘Fighter Pilots’ of Your Company Safe

A consistent, clear safety message backed by unwavering actions is what is takes to keep your employees flying straight.

Most fighter pilots are 25-years-old and full of vinegar. Sure, they’re smart, but most have a lot of velocity, and often very little vector. There’s no way they can keep themselves from harm. Therefore, peacetime training losses are acceptable. This is the way military leadership used to think.
Back then (1988), old school commanders honestly believed that if we were going to train (fly) like we were going to fight, a few losses were to be expected and accepted. Slowly, that way of thinking began to change.
I remember sitting in the general briefing room at my first Red Flag Exercise in Las Vegas, NV. There were well over 400 fighter pilots in the room when the operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Joe-Bob Phillips, took the stage. He had a reputation for being the top, most experienced fighter pilot there. To me, he was just older than dirt.
The Lieutenant Colonel stood quietly in front of us, probably thinking to himself, “I have more time flying upside down than most of these punks have sitting on the toilet.” When he finally spoke, he had a deep, gravelly, fighter-pilot voice. “Over the next three days,” he said, “this group will fly 800 missions per day, each mission lasting approximately 1.5 hours; that’s 1,200 hours of flying per day.”
He paused for a moment, then croaked, “The average fighter pilot makes approximately five mistakes per hour; that’s 6,000 mistakes per day for this group. Because you are all average fighter pilots,” he continued, “you will make a combined 18,000 mistakes over the next three days.” He paused again, letting those statistics sink into our young brains. “With numbers like that,” he said, “statistically there should be losses.” He was quiet again. The room was quiet. “This year,” he informed us, “will be different.”

Senior leadership decided that there would be “ZERO acceptable peacetime losses” for all flying exercises. And thus began a paradigm shift in the way leadership viewed safety and accidents. It all started with senior leadership handing down a directive, believing it to be possible and accepting nothing less.
We flew hard over the next three days. And that year, there were no losses.
Rear Admiral Steven Turcotte, investigative board member on the shuttle Columbia accident and Commander of the Naval Safety Center, had this to say regarding peacetime accidents in naval aviation, “The first element of that new paradigm is a shift in expectations to zero peacetime mishaps— and this is the result of leadership making it so.”
My days as a fighter jock are long past. But, in my six years of flying in the military, I had several close calls or near misses. As most of us know, with any near miss on the job, it’s more luck or divine intervention than skill that keeps us from harm.

Leadership cannot always depend on luck or divine intervention to keep workers safe. Dr. Edgar Schien, professor of management, MIT, wrote this about leadership and culture: “Leadership creates and maintains the culture of an organization, and the workers work within the norms of that culture.”
I know first hand that supervisors, foremen and crew leaders are the ones who create the safety culture of their work environment. Many errant and unsafe acts I did as a young wingman came from emulating the acts of my flight leader.
I left military flying in 1992 and became a commercial airline pilot, but I missed the joys of flying upside down. So, in 1993, I started an air show business flying a vintage WWII fighter—known as a T-6 Texan. What made air show flying really special was that I worked the weekend shows with my brother. He was not a pilot, but he loved flying in the back seat to all the shows. He helped run the logistics of the entire operation.
Life was good until April 25, 1995. On that day, my brother and a fellow friend, a commercial pilot, were ferry flying our T-6 to Vero Beach, FL. Enroute, the engine failed and they crashed. Both died instantly; aircraft destroyed. The families were devastated.
Why—a powerful word isn’t it? Why requires us to dig deep into our work behaviors, thought patterns, perceptions and values to hopefully glean the nugget, the root cause of why an incident occurred.
The investigator who worked my brother’s accident said: “This type of engine failure is indicative of a possible hydraulic leak.” Hydraulic leaks can often be detected on the ground by pulling the propeller blades through nine times by hand before every engine start (as we’ve seen the mechanics do in those old WWII flying movies).
The investigator asked me, “Did your brother and the pilot flying the T-6 know to do this procedure before every engine start to detect this type of problem?” My reply was an emphatic, “Yes!” As a mater of fact, the many times that my brother and I flew together, we probably collectively pulled those blades through literally thousands of revolutions and never once was there a hint of a hydraulic leak.
However, knowing a correct procedure is one thing. Actually doing it every time is something entirely different. Did they actually do the correct starting procedure on that particular day?
The NTSB investigator knew the person to ask—the person who last fueled the airplane before they started the engine. He said, “I don’t remember seeing them pull those blades through, but, uh, not that they didn’t do it. I don’t remember seeing them do it.” He then added, “I remember them being in a big hurry for me to finish fueling the plane so they could get to the air show in time.”

Why would my brother choose not to comply with the correct starting procedure on that particular day, but comply on other days? Could “being in a hurry” be the root cause that motivated him and my pilot friend to behave that way—to take a short cut on the starting procedure to get the job done?
As the leader and chief pilot of that airplane, I have to reflect on my role and responsibility for the accident. Did my brother ever see incongruence between the written rules/procedures and my actions? Did he ever once see me omit pulling those propeller blades through before engine start because we were in a big hurry?
If he did, then as the leader of that air show business, I established a culture that ran incongruent and substandard to the overall safety culture I wanted for the company.
That accident occurred more than 10 years ago. Since then I have learned a lot about safety, leadership, culture and work behaviors. One of those things being that in any business where employees work in a high risk and often dangerous environment, a culture that allows even the slightest mistakes to be overlooked can snowball into tragic results.
As leaders, walk the talk—words congruent with deeds. Be accountable, not held accountable. Be fair and trustworthy. Be competent. Set expectations and monitor performance (silence is consent). Fly safe! ip


Safety Management, Leadership Development

Jeff "Odie" Espenship

Target Leadership's team of military fighter pilots deliver outstanding keynotes and workshop. We relate directly to the "fighter pilots" of your company. We customize our message to your organization.