The Stupidity Theory

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It's been along time since I was in UPT, but I still remember quite clearly that the Unit Standardization Evaluation Member (USEM) hated all students. He seemed to take particular glee in flicking individual name tags off of the flying schedule. "Captain Hook" always said if we ended up in a smoking hole in the ground, it was probably because we had done something stupid. 

In fact, almost 80 percent of Air Force mishaps are due to human error/human factors. What this doesn't mean is that 80 percent of mishaps are due to our own stupidity. People are one part of the mishap equation. They are subject to a number of potential problems: task saturation, spatial disorientation, channelized attention, etc. Many of our weakness' as human beings are things we cannot change. However, one area we can improve on is in exercising good judgment. In other words, how can we stop doing "dumb" things? 

Judgment and wisdom often come with time and experience (and sometimes a little luck). Judgment is also a product of good training and good habit patterns. What was that phrase Capt Hook used? ... "Don't do anything dumb, dangerous, or different." This is sound advice (from an evil man) I have heard repeatedly throughout my flying career. So why do we sometimes defy common sense and take the stupid option? There are lots of reasons. We all want to succeed in our missions. We underestimate the risk. We all believe in our ability to get the job done. Ultimately, when we fall victim to bad decision making, we have ignored the little voice of common sense in all of us. Another thing that can foil common sense is the bad advice of others. How many of you have been talked into doing something that was against your better judgment? I have. Maybe my old USEM should have said, "If you do something stupid, OR if somebody talks you into doing something stupid ... you will end up a smoking hole in the ground." You know, Jedi mind tricks only work on the weak-minded. Over the years, I have come up with a lot of observations and "theories." Thus, the "stupidity theory" was born. 

The stupidity theory is a lesson I have witnessed or been the victim of on several occasions. The first time I learned this lesson, I was a brand new T-37 IP ... 

I was on my first cross-country training mission with my buddy IP (you know ... the experienced guy). The first leg was uneventful, but on the second leg we encountered thunderstorms and much stronger headwinds than we had anticipated. It soon became apparent, even to a young guy like me (I had about 250 hours total time), that we really should seriously consider diverting. My buddy and mentor assured me, we would have plenty of gas. I was somewhat pacified. After all, he had lots of experience, and surely he knew what he was talking about. As the fuel gauge descended towards zero, our conversations diminished accordingly. The longer we flew, the quieter things got. I strongly encouraged a divert. Again, I was assured that we had "no problem." 

"DUDE, we NEED to divert!"

 "No, no, we'll be fine, TRUST ME." Those two words should strike fear in the heart of every aviator. 

Well, we didn't divert. We did the stupid thing. Emergency fuel? Oh, you better believe it. And although we didn't have a mishap, we did shut down with less fuel in the tanks than my wife has in her Suburban. Not a good thing. 

At least I learned an important lesson. Listen to the little voice in your head ... it's telling you the TRUTH! 

Another story that demonstrates the theory comes courtesy of a good friend. Steve-O and I have been friends for over 15 years. Many years ago, we were IPs in T-37s. Steve-O was Chief of Ops Group Stan/Eval. One day Steve-O had an IFE ... 

After running applicable procedures and conferring with the SOF, he decided he should recover the aircraft via a no-flap landing. Then things got interesting. The Ops Group Commander got on the line, and called the no-flap landing into question. In fact, it got to the point that the commander told Steve-O NOT to do the no-flap landing. Now Steve-O had a problem much worse than the broken jet. 

In fairness, the commander was pretty new and he had come from an aircraft where no-flap landings were not routinely accomplished. In the T-37, we did no-flap landings several times a week. Needless to say, Steve-O had quite a dilemma. He could follow published guidance and listen to the "little voice" in his head, or he could abide by the wishes of his boss. You can almost picture the little angel and the little devil on each of Steve-O's shoulders. 

Well, he knew what he had to do. He followed procedure and flew the no-flap, saving the day in the process. He got called on the carpet for his actions. He had to defend his actions to the commander. Steve-O got the a$$-chewing that he knew was coming. He also earned the respect of his boss and all the pilots in the squadron. How many of you are willing to do the right thing, even if it means going against "the man"? Steve-O's answer was perfect. "If I'm the face of DOV, and I start freelancing and ignore what is in the books, what are the rank-and-file guys going to do in a similar situation?" 

Stories are neat, but if they don't provoke thoughts and actions, they are kind of worthless. The best flight decisions we make are usually done during planning and preflight. Fight and fly the way you train. For most situations, we have already considered what we will do in a given set of circumstances. "You just got hit by an SA-7; Lieutenant, you have the aircraft ..." 

Flying combat and combat support sorties greatly magnifies the pressure and importance of accomplishing our missions. Unfortunately, we have suffered a number of mishaps in the last three years. Many of these could have been avoided if we could only side-step the "stupidity theory." 

As fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, the pressure to complete missions will continue to be relentless. On my last trip to the AOR, I had to declare safety of flight for the first time in 17 years of flying. None of us wanted to hold up the mission, but none of us had slept more than 5 hours the night before due to a billeting fiasco. So I got to talk to an irate Colonel about why I was knocking it off 18 hours into a 24-hour duty day. It wasn't a particularly fun conversation, but it was the right thing to do ... for both of us. It's the Colonel's job to keep jets flying and missions moving. It's MY job to get it done right and to get it done safely. 

When you start to see your procedures break down or your CRM go in the tank--Stop. Think about the situation and break the chain of events. Sometimes help can come from the other end of the radio. More often than not, each of us already has the knowledge, the training and the good sense to take any situation to a logical and safe conclusion. We have operated this way since we first put on a flight suit. 

My final point is not to denigrate command and control, but to simply point out the limitations of folks who are not in the cockpit with you. YOU know your situation and the variables you are dealing with better than anyone else. Command your aircraft. That's what the Air Force is paying you to do. You may take heat for your decisions. Oh well. Getting yelled at is nothing compared to losing aircraft or aircrew.