Making it Personal

Making it Personal

By Rod Machado

Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale describes the confusion that James Bond initially felt as a new “Double-O” agent who’s licensed to kill. Bond’s troubles stemmed from his doubts about whether or not he was actually fighting for the cause of justice and doing good for humanity. He was so disturbed by his dilemma that he considered quitting MI6 until his French colleague, Mathis, intervened.

“When you get back to London,” Mathis said, “you will find there are other Le Chiffres [bad guys] seeking to destroy you and your friends and your country…. And now that you have seen a really evil man, you will know how evil they can be and you will go after them to destroy them in order to protect yourself and the people you love….Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”

Mathis instructs Bond that to do his job well, he has to make it personal. This is how to protect the people he cares about, rather than concern himself with whether or not he’s on the side of right or wrong. I think there’s a lesson there for all pilots.

Several years ago, I was preparing to give a flight review to a highly experienced pilot. We met for a ground review and then reconvened at the airplane. “Don’t worry about the preflight,” he said, “I’ve already done it.”

I replied, “Great, I’m just going to have a look around myself if you don’t mind.” Apparently he did mind, feeling insulted that I didn’t trust him enough to do a preflight. He didn’t know that the preflight is something I take personally, always insisting on seeing for myself that the airplane is airworthy. It’s how I protect myself and the passengers in my charge. Most reasonable people understand this.

Perhaps at a younger age I might have felt conflicted as to the propriety of preflighting an already preflighted airplane, or I might have foregone that choice to avoid bruising another pilot’s ego. I no longer face that dilemma, because my decisions are not just about me. They’re also about the people I wish to protect. The safety of my passengers is something I’ve made personal, and it governs every aviation decision I make.

On the other hand, pilots sometimes make decisions on the basis of saving face, avoiding shame or guilt, or a misplaced allegiance to machinery, social entity or employer. Decisions motivated by these factors tend to make people behave in less safe ways.

An example involves a pilot I knew flying a Cessna 210 while critically low on fuel with a load of passengers. He was unable to find his destination airport at night in reduced visibility. Instead of declaring an emergency and obtaining help, he poked around the area, hoping to spot the field before his engine quit. My guess is that he was trying to save his airplane or save face, instead of trying to save passengers. The airplane eventually crashed and everyone on board perished.

Decisions made on the basis of protecting people are often far better decisions, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong in the eyes of the law. Why? Because people are important; FAA sanctions and flying machines are much less so. Had the Cessna 210 pilot been concerned enough for his passengers to ask for assistance, he might have been sanctioned by the FAA, punished perhaps for improper flight planning. But his passengers, who didn’t get a vote, would probably be alive. That is clearly a more favorable outcome.

When you make the protection of people in your charge something personal, you’re more likely to behave properly, irrespective of how that behavior looks in the eyes of a higher authority.

On March 10th, 1967 Captain Bob Pardo and his wingman Earl Aman were the last of 44 F4 fighters on a bombing raid into North Vietnam. Pardo and Aman were both hit by enemy fire. Pardo continued the strike but Aman’s aircraft was hit again and was leaking fuel badly. Upon reaching 20,000 feet on their way home, it was clear that Aman’s aircraft didn’t have enough fuel to reach the closest refueling tanker.

At that point, Pardo had enough fuel to reach the tanker but he didn’t want to leave Aman and his backseater, Lt. Bob Houghton to their uncertain and probably unpleasant fate. As Pardo says, “How can you fly off and leave someone you just fought a battle with? The thought never occurred to me.” So Pardo decided to try something that, to his knowledge, had never been tried before. He had Aman jettison his drag chute and tried inserting his radome into the drag chute compartment of Aman’s F4 so as to push him. Wake turbulence made this impossible to do, so Pardo suggested Aman shut down his engine and extend his tailhook. Pardo and his backseater, Lt. Steve Wayne, were able to connect a flange on their windscreen against Aman’s tailhook, pushing him for 15 to 20 second at a time before sliding off, reconnecting and pushing again.  

Pardo pushed Aman and Houghton into friendly Laotian territory where both bailed out successfully. Realizing that he was too low on fuel, Pardo and Wayne also ejected safely into Laotian territory. All four men were safely returned to base.

Clearly, Bob Pardo wasn’t motivated by the propriety of his actions. As Mathis instructed Bond to do, Pardo made the safety of his fellow pilots personal, and everyone was better off for it.

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