Analysis: “Losing Control” Usually Only Means One Thing
Matt Pierce Briscoe
Over the past few days we have heard a lot of talk about how government officials have lost control of the COVID-19 situation. You hear people say how President Trump and his team appear to have lost control and don’t know how to get it back. You hear people say that Gov. Abbott has done the same thing. On MSNBC this week Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales said that we’ve lost control of contact tracing and that she has never been comfortable with that even when we only a had a hundred or so cases each day. But there is an irony about losing control of a situation—it more often than not means that whoever is in charge has lost all control and now it comes down to pointing the blame so as not to make you look so bad.
During my career as a journalist I have had the chance to cover numerous airplane crashes, interview pilots and astronauts, talk with NTSB and crash investigators and even review possibly over a hundred NTSB accident reports. There is an irony to nearly every single one of them—“Did the pilot-in-command follow the established procedure?”
A few years ago I had the chance to interview NASA Astronaut John Young who not only flew to the moon, but he was the commander of the very first space shuttle flight. John young became a friend and I am proud of that. During one of our first conversations I asked John if he had ever been scared?
“No. Because there is nothing you can do about it there are procedures for everything that are written by people who are much smarter than you are ,” he said. “If you just follow those procedures then most of the time it works out alright.”
But what John Young said after that really stuck in my mind. He said “It doesn’t matter if you agree with them or not, you just follow them because deep down you know that they work.”
When I hear political leaders talk about how they have lost control of a situation it really aggravates me because there really isn’t an excuse for it. Anybody who has ever taken leadership training, been in the military, held any position where you have to make critical decisions or whatever, knows that to achieve the desired outcome during a crisis you have to do one simple thing: Follow the damn procedures because somebody smarter than you designed them.
US Airways Flight 1549 was a scheduled commercial passenger flight from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina that, on January 15, 2009, was successfully ditched in the Hudson River adjacent to midtown Manhattan six minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport after being disabled by striking a flock of Canada Geese during its initial climb out.
The bird strike, which occurred just northeast of the George Washington Bridge about three minutes into the flight, resulted in an immediate and nearly complete loss of thrust from both engines. When the aircrew of the Airbus 320 determined that they would be unable to safely reach any airfield from the site of the bird strike, they turned it southbound and glided over the Hudson, finally ditching the airliner near the USS Intrepid museum about three minutes after losing power. All 155 occupants safely evacuated the airliner, which was still virtually intact though partially submerged and slowly sinking, and were quickly rescued by nearby watercraft.
The entire crew of Flight 1549 was later awarded the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. The award citation read, “This emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement.” It has been described as “the most successful ditching in aviation history.”
That only happened because the Pilot-in-Command did not question the procedures that were in place by Air Bus engineers for their A320 some years ago. The pilots did not sit there and question the motive, thought process or science behind the procedure—they just followed them exactly as they were written.
Some would argue that you just don’t have time to follow the procedure but that is never an acceptable excuse. During a time of crisis, you don’t have time to NOT follow the procedures that are in place and debate the theory and rhetoric. You just do it.
I heard somebody say that Gov. Abbot has made a lot of mistakes and there is no doubt that he has. Gov. Abbot is guilty of listening to the home office in Washington and listening to the far-right wing of his party instead of listening to the people who know how to follow procedures.
People like Chief Nim Kidd and Dr. Hellerstadt. Trump is guilty of it himself. Instead of listening to the wisest voices in the room during a time of crisis, he looks simply at the problem and not the procedure. That is how planes crash and that is how people die.
Do you know what they officially call a pilot who doesn’t follow procedure? No, the answer isn’t “dead.” They call him an unemployed former pilot.
In the hours following an aircraft crash the NTSB looks to interview the pilot or listen to the cockpit voice recordings of the incident. They are ALWAYS looking for one thing first—pilot error. Was the pilot sitting there talking and working through the established procedures or were they sitting there trying to figure it out as they went along, debating if the science was correct or if the data was right or if they had the resources available to handle the emergency.
If the investigators establish that the crew did not follow established procedures then they 9 times out of 10 rule that the accident was “pilot error” and the resulting finding are usually listed as “preventable.”
This week I heard Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales on MSNBC talking about how we have lost control of contact tracing. She is right that to some extent. “We” did not lose control of contact tracing—the pilot-in-command lost control of it and started questioning everybody from the top down. While granted, there is blame to be pointed towards the Governor and to the President for not having adequate resources in place, the ultimate blame lies on those local pilots who are in charge. Here is why I analyze it that way.
When somebody loses control of a situation it ALWAYS happens in these steps:
(1). The Pilot-in-command was not 100% in control, observant, proactive and prepared when things were going smoothly.
(2). At the first sign of trouble, the Pilot-in-Command did not communicate with the rest of the team and left the door open for confusion, questioning and error.
(3). The Pilot-in-Command did not effectively respond to the crisis in a proper way that would promote communication, action and response.
(4). The leader felt that they had no time to follow established procedures and chose to deviate from the established procedures.
(5). The pilot-in-command did not effectively communicate with the ground controllers throughout the crisis.
(6). The pilot-in-command did not properly follow “pilotage” and that action contributed to the cause of the crash.
During a crisis, a pilot knows that what they mean by “pilotage” are three things: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
Corpus Christi is home to NAS-Corpus Christi. Out there, there they train new pilots on how to become “exceptional pilots.” I would bet that if you went and picked up their training manuals you would see it written all over it in sections that deal with emergency situations. I guarantee you that one of the first rules that they teach a young pilot is to: Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate. What is the first rule of Aviation? Follow the established procedure for everything and DO NOT QUESTION IT because it was written by somebody who knows more about it than you do.
Here is the thing that I want you takeaway from this entire analysis: Pilot error can be avoided if you stop questioning the procedures, just follow the damn thing and communicate. If you do, then chances are the plane gets back into your control and most of the time you can land it without further incident or consequence.
Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.
It is the only way that we beat this thing.