ZERO dark thirty, Tongduchon Valley, South Korea: minutes to target, speed 420 knots, altitude 300 feet. A single carrier-based A6E Grumman Intruder points north surgically utilizing its terrain following radar while threading rain-soaked valleys, fogged filled mountainous passes, and low visibility scenarios on approach to the worlds’ most heavily defended border – the infamous 38th parallel. Aboard the aircraft are 12, Mk-82, 500 pound bombs. This is serious business. Surface-to-air North Korean radars are active as real-world threats and imminent physical dangers lurk. Massive geo-political turmoil awaits any navigational, procedural or performance errors.
It has been thundering since the beginning of the high-speed, low altitude “live-fire” training mission (theoretically, perfect weather for this aircraft’s mission profile of low-level interdiction), yet the closer the target looms (USAF Nightmare bombing complex), the worse the weather becomes. Suddenly, continuous lightning bolts clearly illuminate the silhouette of the jet and its two aircrew. One of them has started to sweat. In the left seat is a young naval aviator – a relatively inexperienced 26 year old who, as the pilot and the only manipulator of the flight controls, is operationally responsible for the overall safety of flight. In the right seat is the Bombardier/Navigator – the well-seasoned senior officer and Vietnam War hero. One prefers to terminate the flight in the interest of safety, adherence to existing rules, and compliance with standard operating procedures. The other crewmember – through body language, grunts, hand signals, and time-consuming silent deferrals – intends to “press on and get the mission done”. It becomes obvious that a covert difference of opinion permeates the cockpit infusing in its wake the unmistakable aroma of deference.
Deference is the condition of submitting to the espoused, legitimate influence of one’s superior or superiors. It is a yielding or submitting to the judgment of a recognized superior, out of respect or reverence. Deference has been studied extensively by political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists. Yet, most cogent to our field of aviation this definition harvests a myriad of obscured cobwebs, mouse traps, and decision-altering hand grenades.
Ground zero for detonation is based on simple differences in expectation – “Is what I expect to happen what’s really going on – are we on the same page”? At specific critical moments in time and space, any misunderstandings, assumptions, incapacities or neglect will quickly, easily and forcibly impale chards of failure and loss. While these landmines can be potentially embedded in every flight we take, the mere fact that our judgments can be altered by an outside source (someone who either covertly or with brazen gusto applies undue pressure by enforcing early time constraints and task saturations) can easily deliver significant deviations from standard operating policies and procedures. Additionally, it sets a scenario where the breakdown of effective communication will alter the basic chemical composition of our own personal decision making process.
In my lifelong professional quest to become more proficient at this human factor genre, I’ve called on my experience and research to label four of them. Analogous to petri dishes, they are perfect culture-creating trays cogent to the possible misapplication of deference: leader/follower relationships, communication skills, situational awareness, and decision making.
Leader/follower – It starts on day one and it continues on every single flight. As a participant on both sides of this equation, I can clearly identify with the specific roles whose effective fulfillment will eventually dictate mission accomplishment and more importantly, assure the safety of flight. I have always done my best to establish clear lines which unambiguously demarcate areas of responsibility and more importantly, establish that final authority. These must be identified, understood, agreed upon and adhered to, “prior to leaving earth”. As the leader, I must set the tone from the very beginning and must be consistent. If I’m at the flight controls then I make that final decision. If I am not, then I willingly grant the authority to whomever is at the flight controls ensuring that the pilot does feel completely comfortable with his own decision making.
Written policy and procedural manuals are useful tools that can be often referenced. Yet, I found out that for me, nothing beats: “Hey, just want to remind you that today our safety is in your hands, let’s do what’s right. If you have any questions, doubts or concerns, please speak up – let me know right away, don’t forget – I’ll back you up”. This simple phrase, spoken clearly and unequivocally at the beginning of each and every flight has been my decades-long number one countermeasure against the misinterpretation of deference.
Communication – Clear, concise, unambiguous, timely and solution driven. Remember, “The greater the stress level, the more difficult communication will be”. In the presence of improper deference, accident histories clearly identify breakdowns, misunderstandings, and assumptions. Clear examples are “trial balloons” – these are generally ambiguous hints, dangling participles, or incomplete statements issued by the individual with the concern (in hope that the person(s) they are addressing picks up on their trend and properly interprets their meaning, all along not getting their feelings hurt or not feeling disrespected). More often than not, those “trial balloons” are in fact, either misunderstood or ignored. They also eat up precious time. Keep it basic, keep it timely, try your very best to offer solutions and/or proffer options regarding your dilemmas. Don’t just state the problem, rather give yourself a way out!
I have always utilized key phrases such as “I’m concerned or I’m uncomfortable” as sacrosanct statements which, for me, identify serious situations. If those words are spoken, it’s time for all of us to pay attention. More importantly, as the person at the controls, I have to know well before the firecracker has been lit that I can speak up without being judged. Also be cognizant of verbal (tone/inflection/interruptions/volume) and non-verbal (body language/eye contact) feedback which may deliver a much stronger message. Make the message the luminous star of your statement. Focus on what is right not who is right! As the listener, I always make the extra effort to validate any concerns, it could very well save our lives.
Situational awareness – Is the perception of environmental elements, and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their future status? It’s a mouthful for sure, and what makes it even more difficult to master, is its ever-changing nature. In simpler terms, it is just “pattern recognition, a been there-done that” mantra. In familiar territories we can easily adapt. Yet, in unchartered waters or at the crest of a tsunami (despite our valiant and best efforts to “find our way”), the very last thing we need is the feeling that an aroma lingers, potentially affecting our final outcome. This is especially true of an aroma that has a direct effect on our livelihood.
Interestingly enough, accident histories show that nearly always significant clues are available to recognize and recover. They also clearly identify errors in judgment as the leading cause of accidents, followed closely by those that are skill-based. Furthermore, the cognitive nature of the analysis required in gaining and maintaining situational awareness utilizes both short-term and long-term memory banks, both of which are finite. Both are negatively affected by the bilateral stresses of criticality and time. The more complex the solution to the puzzle is, the more difficult the process will be. And as discretionary time counts down, the malignancies of “tunnel vision” are sure to yield their results. Accurate situational awareness is useless if it cannot be converted into proper action. And that action has to be applied at the right time, at the right place, and in the right manner by the one “behind the wheel”. The thought that lingers is who truly is the author of that situational awareness at the moment of truth.
Decision making – Have you ever noticed how easy it is to know when someone else is making a bad decision? We find it easier to assess someone else’s choices because we all have two views of the world – an outside and an inside view. When you think about someone else’s situation you are able to consider it from the outside – using the rational side of your mind. But when “the shoe is on the other foot,” and it is a decision affecting your life, the emotional side does take over. Reality is everyone’s mental “default setting”. The role of emotion in decision making is grossly underrated in the aviation community – no doubt as “real men don’t talk about such things”. Yet, there is an over-abundance of evidence that emotional decision making might very well be hard at work when we are listing our options in flight. It is emotion – how we feel – that “closes the deal”, that makes that final choice. The emotional reward will be the approval of his peers and superiors will send his way after one has “hacked the mission,” though the going was tough. As a leader, have you ever placed undue pressure on whomever is working the flight controls and throttle?
Let us not forget that “good stories are often about bad decisions”. Emotion consumes logic and drives behavior, in all of its righteous glory, often transforms into the enemy of analysis affecting how we do process information. We then are prone to misinterpret facts, commit framing errors, take shortcuts, and align ourselves with confirmation bias. Emotion’s first cousin – subjective confidence – is the probability of being correct. It is not a judgement – it is a feeling. Coherence of a story equals acceptance, while incoherence of a story equals denial. Surprisingly, acceptance of a story (as gospel) actually requires very little quality and/or quantity, it’s much more about the strength of the delivery, emotion, passion, energy, confidence and enthusiasm with which it is transmitted.
The landmine here is believing that it is actually true or correct. Trusting the validity of a story solely based on the confidence of self or others is a poor indicator of accuracy. Statistically, you might as well flip a coin. So now, someone has made their mind up. Why are they saying what they are saying? Dissect it, get to the bottom of their reasoning. Ask yourself if in fact you are in over your head. How really important is it to be right here, right now? Specifically, what price are you willing to pay? It is exactly these replies to each and every one of my questions that did in fact keep us safe on that pitch black Korean night.
Forty-three years later, this old and crusty Intruder pilot, hammers away at these keys and the sweat does come back. Why is that? Because even with amazing technological advances and modernization of aircraft, as well as a much greater skillset required of our aircrews, accidents still happen. And they happen for the same basic reasons. The dangerous aromas of deference are still taking their toll. Let us not allow those things that matter the least affect the things that matter the most.
- Press on and get the job done: the aroma of deference - February 27, 2023
Well Done, Marine. I have a similar story of flying a 4-ship of AV-8B’s into that same range, what flight. CRM/HF is what saved us that day.
You’ve still got it, Marine. Good article. It seems the current “pattern recognition” is being ignored by some.
Great article, Mario, great perspective
Outstanding insights from a guy who’s been there…and not only talked the talk, but walked the walk.
Way too much psychobabbel!
Concur. This article would have been more helpful to me with fewer references to “culture-creating trays cogent to the possible misapplication of deference,” and more specific examples of how multi-person crews can reduce risk. Some discussion of risk reduction tools for pilots flying alone would also have been welcome.
Agreed, this has to be one of the hardest to read documents I’ve ever seen which, while I believe it’s content is correct and relvant, could have been written in a far easier style to understand. English is a wonderful language and doesn’t need to be made complicated to impress readers who merely wish to learn from others’ experiences.
Good article. This applies to all walks of life.
I agree with You, Mr. Gregg Bender, what means the antecedent comments are, to mee, at least strange and the result of readings that do not encourage the brain to work a little more.
Phenomial piece of work expressing practical everyday applicable advice & principals in reference to battlefield experience.
Thanks Sir Mario
D LeMoine B
Mario, good to see that you’re still contributing to the crew force. I always enjoyed flying with you in the B-727 days. It’s hard to believe that was over 25 years ago. Time marches on … Proverbs 3:5-6. – Tracy Patrick
Thanks Tracy-right back at ya!
The pleasure was always mine.
Hey, drop me a quick email –