By the book or buy the farm

  • Published
  • By Col. Carl S. Gramlick
  • 11th Wing vice commander
Urban legend says when a jet crashed on a farm the farmer usually sued the government for damages, and the amount demanded was always more than enough to pay off the mortgage. Since this type of crash was usually fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life. Hence, he bought the farm. This phrase dates back to World War II, although its variants go back much further.

Today we hear, "There are no new causes of aircraft accidents, just new people making the same mistakes." This is because system errors or mechanical malfunctions make up only 5 percent of all aircraft accidents -- human errors make up the rest. This phenomenon is not limited to single-seat aircraft; human or aircrew error exacts the same toll on multiplace airframes. In a single instant, a breakdown in crew discipline can overcome years of skill development, in-depth systems knowledge and thousands of hours of experience. To examine crew discipline more closely, I'm breaking it down into two components: crew member empowerment and checklist discipline.

Crew member empowerment refers to the basic principle of ensuring the sum of the members of an aircraft crew is greater than the individuals themselves. Successful empowerment demands a supervisor create an environment where members feel they can share ideas and, more importantly, their concerns.

Through the constant struggle to improve crew empowerment on the B-52, I learned two basic tenets. Commanders must be sincere in soliciting other crew members' inputs. The idea is not only to ask for opinions during an emergency, but also to seek it throughout the flight to reinforce this concept. More importantly, everyone must feel they are in a climate where they have the courage to do the right thing and speak up when concerned or unsure.

As in flight, these maxims pertain directly to our number one mission here at Bolling: superior customer service. In order to provide superior customer service, we must have an empowered workforce. Take for example billeting: A guest finds a room unacceptable due to a leaking toilet, mice or just doesn't like the décor. Without any hesitation, the clerk immediately gives them another room and provides an upgrade at no charge. He or she doesn't have to check with a supervisor or panic about whether to do it or not. He or she just does it. That's empowerment. As a very wise man, Barney Fife, used to say, "Nip it! You've got to nip it in the bud!" Take care of the customer complaint before it escalates into something major. The best way to do this is to see that your Airmen understand your vision as it relates to customer service and the mission objective.

Empowering your Airmen demonstrates that you trust them to do the right thing. This in turn improves their morale and provides them with a purpose. I guarantee a motivated Airman with high morale will provide better customer service to your customers. It has to do with that "circle-of-life" thing.

The second component is checklist discipline. Along with empowerment, a recurring admonition you will hear regarding good discipline is "checklist, checklist, checklist!" Checklists provide a logical and standardized method of efficiently and safely meeting mission objectives. Not only does it aid a crew in preparing and configuring an aircraft for a bomb run, but good, structured adherence to checklists also helps with workload management and decision-making processes, and ensures practical guidelines are followed.

Every day on Bolling organizations run checklists based on a specific sequence of written guidance. Why? Because good procedures ensure the desired outcome is "predictable and repeatable." Whether it's a protocol officer running a distinguished visitors quarters checklist checking communication equipment, or the command post running a quick-reaction checklist to save lives and protect resources; without proper checklist discipline, the forgotten may not get done. Good checklist discipline provides a way to ensure the (potentially) forgotten is remembered. 

Good discipline is a never-ending battle. High operation tempo often leads to complacency, and we are tempted to cut corners, use poor checklist discipline and perhaps run an organization on the edge of established procedures because we "know what we're doing." A recent, unauthorized and much publicized B-52 weapons movement provides a great example: An aircraft commander fails to follow the checklist, and the rest of the crew does not feel empowered--and is not forceful enough--to direct the proper action. 

As an aircraft commander in a B-52, I found the more empowered my Airmen were and the better our checklist discipline, the more successful the mission. We tried to weave these two concepts into the very fiber of our flying activity. We briefed it, we practiced it in the simulator, and we tried to make good on it when we flew. Good discipline overrides panic and reinforces the ability to maintain control of the aircraft when faced with a serious flight emergency. The same is true for our mission areas here in the 11th Wing. 

A successful supervisor cannot co-exist with poor discipline, and autocratic leaders who are micro managers are not empowering Airmen. Likewise, any aircraft commander who creates an environment that does not allow for good crew member empowerment or checklist discipline is preparing to buy the farm.