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The Attitude Problem

September 26, 2009

My first 5 years out of college were spent flying the mighty P3 Orion for the US Navy.  This is a maritime patrol aircraft whose main mission is anti-submarine warfare, but also engages in search and rescue, mining, drug smuggling interdiction (mainly in the Caribbean) and reconnaissance.  Many times when we encountered surface ship traffic on a mission, we would fly down to 2oo feet above the water and execute the infamous “fly by” to get a closer look at the vessel.   Officially, this was a maneuver which allows us to get intelligence photographs of foreign ships, but unofficially, we often did this just to satisfy our natural curiosity and to have a little fun!

On one particular mission we were patrolling a large body of water and I was in the left seat and had a good friend of mine in the right co-pilot’s seat.   I positioned the aircraft to execute a fly by (in this case on a US Navy ship) and began my decent to 200 feet.  Now, we happen to be flying into the sun on this pass, which really shouldn’t be a big deal when flying, but more on this later.  As we approached the vessel, I waggled the wings to say hello to our fellow sailors and then as we were finishing our pass, I scanned the horizon to ensure the sky was clear for my full power “pretend for a moment that I am a jet fighter” ascent back up to a higher altitude.   This was the fun part, you see the P3 Orion is not an incredibly nimble aircraft, certainly not like a fighter jet, but more like small airliner, low and slow was the name of our game.  When we were chasing submarines 200 feet above the water, we could certainly yank and bank with the best of them, but this is a fairly large aircraft, with 4 large engines hanging off of the wings, you get the idea.

It was at this point when things became interesting (not that flying isn’t interesting, but patrolling hundreds of square miles of open ocean does get monotonous at times).  When the co-pilot isn’t flying, it’s their job to assist the pilot with communication, navigation, and monitoring the instruments.  On this particular flight, just at the moment when we started our high power “pretend for a moment that I am a jet fighter” aggressive ascent, my trusty co-pilot was fixated on what he thought was the G-Meter (also called the Accelerometer).  The G-Meter tells a pilot how many “G’s” the plane is experiencing at any moment, reading 1 in level flight, which is what you’re experiencing right now, unless you happen to have just jumped off a building (something less than 1) or ran your car into a wall (something much greater than 1).  The P3 was rated for +3 G’s which really isn’t a lot considering the average jet fighter pulls more than 8 G’s at times.   In hind sight, this was our “ah-ha” moment, as he was actually staring, not at the G-Meter, but at the similarly round and very much just like the G-Meter with a needle that moves in much the same way, called the Vertical Speed Indicator (VSI).  The VSI tells us how many feet per minute we’re ascending or descending.  There’s nothing wrong in particular with fixating on this instrument (although pilot’s are trained not to fixate on any one thing), but in this case he mistakenly thought it was the G-Meter.

So as we continued our climb out,  the fun began, as the VSI (which has a read-out marked in thousands, 1 through 5, plus and minus) quickly climbed up over +3.  Yea, we were burning up the skies, P3 style, climbing out at a “throw more logs on that fire” 3,500 feet per minute and accelerating!   So all my co-pilot saw was us approaching +4 and thinking it was the G-Meter (I think the flying into the bright sun factor may have played a part here), he began to push on the yoke as I was pulling it back (For those non-pilots, pull yoke back, cows get smaller, push yoke forward, cows get bigger).  Now’s a good time to introduce a third person into this party, our flight engineer, who sits in the center, right between the pilots and closely monitors the engines indicators for errors with an intensity that would make a tennis net  judge proud.  The flight engineer, typically a salty old sailor (who really knows his stuff), helps the pilots monitor all of the engine and systems status and health.   The flight engineer was also typically the elder crew member and was a respected, integral part of the cockpit.

Back to the action, where the co-pilot and I were deadlocked in our “push-pull” tug of war on the yoke when the co-pilot looks at me and says, “I don’t like your attitude!”.  As you can imagine, I was perplexed, so I replied, “you have a problem with my attitude?”.    Cut to the even more perplexed flight engineer, who at this point looks like his winning lotto ticket was just blown out the window.  He barks, “What the hell is going on here” (with all due respect of course), as he thought we were having a little “you hurt my feelings” tiff in the cockpit 200 feet above the ocean going fast enough to fly into the water in about 4 seconds.  So let’s freeze for a moment to sum up this scenario, we were 200 feet above the water, climbing at full power ceremoniously away from a US Navy warship, the co-pilot thinks I am over stressing the aircraft, the flight engineer thinks we’re having a social conflict and me, I am just wondering what the heck was slipped into my co-pilot’s coffee this morning!

Well, you’ll be glad to know that we all survived this incident unscathed for you see, as it turned out, the “attitude” comment wasn’t an assessment of my leadership style or personality, but it was his concern that the plane’s attitude (angle of ascent) was too high, thus creating the perceived +3 G’s situation in his mind.  Collectively we were able to quickly determine the source of the confusion and rectify the situation so we would live to fly again.  Needless to say, our little adventure was the source of much laughter at the Officer’s Club that night and for weeks to follow!

Effective communication and teamwork is critical in just about every endeavor that you will engage in throughout your life.  In our hurried, fast paced business climate today, it is increasingly easy to take short cuts, jump to conclusions and misinterpret the messages that are presented to us.  Personally, I have more than once, taken an email out of context because I read it too quickly, or was distracted (sun in my eyes!) while reading it.   In our increasingly virtual work world today, effective communication is even more important and vastly more challenging.  If three people can have a communication breakdown sitting right next to each other in a cockpit, you can imagine the obstacles that virtual teams present.   In my role managing a virtual team, I stand by the mantra, “communicate clearly, early and often”.   In addition, I try to make it a priority to eliminate multi-tasking while communicating, whether that’s a phone call or reading an email.  We are all presented with many obstacles to effective communication (not unlike the challenges we faced in the cockpit that day) and it is imperative that we recognize these obstacles and overcome them quickly.  So the next time you find yourself in your own version of our “attitude problem”, it is very likely just a misread of a team member’s true intentions.   Just determine what the instrument of the confusion is, and quickly get the team back on board.   Because when everyone over communicates and works together, it’s like having your mission on autopilot.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Holly Piela permalink
    September 29, 2009 9:56 am

    John, this is really great… I’m interested
    how you set this up. I really liked this story
    and learned a little about flying too!

  2. Sara Koeth permalink
    December 3, 2009 1:37 pm

    Very well done John and so true! I am sure everyone can relate.

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