Trust your Sixth Sense
Early in my flying career, I was involved in an incident which caused a part of the aircraft to become detached in flight. There was no direct risk to anyone’s safety, but the incident could have easily been prevented.
The subsequent investigation was a sobering and unpleasant experience. From my perspective, I was trying to get the task completed, but fell short of rational thinking.
Afterwards, I had an interview with the Squadron Boss, he reminded me that such events were not good for my career and offered some sage advice.
“Trust your sixth sense”. He expanded further by describing the ‘sixth sense’ as that nagging feeling you get when something is just not right. “When you feel that ‘nagging’, stop what you are doing, talk to someone else and think about it”.
The RAF didn’t just rely on learning from mistakes, there was series of courses and programmes to continually improve Flight Safety awareness. A regular exercise was to review previous incidents and use these as a learning opportunity. In many cases, an aircraft incident was caused entirely by the decision making of the crew. Why these decisions were made was covered by a Flight Safety aspect called ‘Human Factors’.
One of the benefits I found from the Human Factors training was to recognise the external factors that influenced poor judgement. All twelve of them will be familiar.
• Lack of communication
• Lack of resources
• Lack of teamwork
• Lack of awareness
• Lack of knowledge
• Lack of assertiveness
This sort of learning would ‘square the circle’. When it came to relying on a ‘sixth sense’, It was also essential to recognise the situations when your judgement could be impaired. For example, it’s 2 am, you’re tired and under pressure to complete a task.
Later in my career, I became a Squadron Authoriser and would ‘authorise’ my own flights and /or those of the whole formation. All flights were subject to stringent rules covering, weather limitations, crew composition, airfield diversions and a whole host of other factors. There was always the pressure to go flying. When faced with a ‘borderline’ decision, I would imagine the following.
I would imagine that there was an incident while in flight. I would then imagine me standing in a court retelling the events and decisions I made that led to it. If I could justify myself to the imaginary Judge and Jury, I would generally think it was the right decision. This was my version of testing my ‘sixth sense’. The imaginary Judge was a tough critic but never as tough as the real Squadron Boss when I had to justify why the early morning ‘4-ship’ had been cancelled due to weather.
There was one occasion later in my flying career that I now look back upon and think my ‘imaginary’ Judge would be less than impressed. There was no harm caused but it is a good example of how an unplanned deviation from plan can end up running out of control. Can you spot any of the 12 ‘Human Factors’ in this example?
A fellow Squadron Navigator and I were taking a jet from Lossiemouth to another RAF base in England to provide a static display for their Families Day. A simple route was planned, high level to start, an instrument approach at another base and then low level transit (about 30 minutes across Wales) to the base. At about 15 minutes to go, I noticed on my moving map display that we were flying close to the bottom of (but outside of) a small airfield. I suggested to the Nav that we could call them on the radio and fly through their zone. We called them up and they informed us ‘circuit was clear’. At that stage we were about 45 seconds (7 miles) out, so I lined up, moved the wings back and aimed just south of the grass strip. All good so far, looking good at 250 ft above the ground with a speed of about 500 knots. About 20 seconds out, there was an unexpected call on the radio frequency, ‘Helo 12 downwind’. Contrary to what we had been told, there was a helicopter 1000’ above the airfield. I could not see it. A quick call on the radio from me,
‘1000ft’ was the reply
‘Ok, we’ll stay low’
During this exchange my focus switched between looking for this helicopter and ensuring I was lined up on the right spot just south of the airfield.
At that moment it felt under control, we were clear of the unseen circuit traffic and now seconds from the airfield centre.
As we passed just below the airfield, I noticed we were just about to fly over a car boot sale. Sh*t, Sh*t, Sh*t…….throttles back to idle, and that was all we could do. Normally we would pull up to gain height and separation but that was not an option as there was the helicopter above. Over the top we went, fast, low and as quiet as possible.
The cockpit was very quiet for the remaining transit to the base. And I was half expecting to be met by someone official. In my mind I was imagining some seller at the car boot keeling over with the shock of a completely random flypast. Once shut down, I went to Base Ops and called up the small airfield to check if we had caused any issues. No issues at all, and they even asked if we’d come back through on our return, an invitation that was gracefully declined.
In conclusion, it continues to be a good piece of advice in which I have (mostly) been able to rely on.
My 'learnings' are.
- Use your ‘sixth sense’
- Recognise the factors with which your decision making may be compromised.
- If in doubt, stop, think and where possible, speak to someone.