Procedures… and Common Sense

All large organizations have procedures. They couldn’t work without them. The vast majority of procedures govern routine tasks, and generally work moderately well, but there are also emergency procedures.

When I was a Navy pilot, many long years ago, I had to learn emergency procedures which detailed what to do in each of the many possible ways in which a complex military aircraft could malfunction… or be caused to malfunction. Knowing these procedures was absolutely necessary, because when an aircraft malfunctions, for whatever reason, a pilot has very little time to react. In one of the more noted recent events, U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger lost both engines of his A320 due to a bird strike at an altitude of about 3,000 feet. In less than four minutes he and his copilot made a successful water landing on the Hudson, with no loss of life and largely minor injuries. Such emergency procedures are not only useful, but vital, in instructing pilots, or those in other fields, what to do – in situations that are known to be possible and where remedial emergency procedures can be implemented.

But procedures, even emergency procedures, sometimes can’t deal with the situation.

When I was a junior helicopter pilot learning how to become a helicopter aircraft commander of the now antique H-34, a senior lieutenant commander and I were flying over Oahu on our way to Kauai. Sixty-three miles of deep water separate the islands. We were perhaps four or four miles away from the ocean, when the lieutenant commander said, “Something’s not right with the engine.” All the engine read-outs were normal. The sump light [to detect metal] in the oil, a sign that all was not right with the engine, showed nothing was wrong.

The chief mechanic couldn’t hear anything, but the lieutenant commander immediately executed a precautionary emergency landing in a field. Later examination of the engine, once the H-34 was hauled back to base, revealed that the engine was in the early stages of cracking and failing. If the lieutenant commander had followed “procedures,” we likely would have faced engine failure in the middle of the Kauai Channel. As it was, he took a certain amount of flak until the analysis of the engine confirmed his decision. It also saved the aircraft.

I was reminded of this by the recent decision by the acting Navy Secretary, Thomas B. Modly, to remove Captain Brett E. Crozier from command of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, because Captain Crozier sent letters to between twenty and thirty senior officials asking for speedier and more effective measures to protect his crew of almost 5,000 from the rapid spread of coronavirus. Officially, Captain Crozier was relieved for failing to follow official procedures and the chain of command, when he felt that the “chain of command” was failing his crew.

Coronavirus is one of the most contagious diseases on the planet at the moment, and one that has no vaccine and no proven treatment for remediation. Every hour and every day that the “chain of command” dithered over what to do meant more crew members would be infected, given the close quarters aboard any Naval vessel. Speedy action would not only have spared more crew members from the coronavirus, but also would have allowed the Roosevelt to return to duty sooner.

Modly’s action is exactly why the military gets ridiculed for being hide-bound and stupid. Most times, the procedures work just fine, but there are times when they don’t, and it’s time to throw out the procedures. This was one of those times.

5 thoughts on “Procedures… and Common Sense”

  1. Sam says:

    This topic brings to a mind a fictional corollary from an ongoing series called My Hero Academia (MHA).

    In MHA the protagonist and his classmates are enrolled in a high school course to become professionally licensed heroes.

    Fairly early on in the series the protagonist and two of his classmates fought and defeated a villain who had been killing professional heroes and had rendered a pro-Hero unconscious when the protagonist arrived on the scene.

    Afterwards the chief of police gave the students a public reprimand which went on their official record for acting without a license or the supervision/authorisation of a professional hero. After that the chief of police privately acknowledged that their actions were courageous and had saved lives. Privately he thanked them for their actions but publicly condemned them.

    There is always a delicate balancing act between maintaining order within an organisation and rewarding individuals for their initiative. There are too many people out there with poor judgment who would all to readily substitute their own judgment for the existing rules or established framework if they see others being rewarded for doing so.

    1. But in the case of Captain Crozier, he tried the approved procedures first… and got no satisfactory response… and more of his crew kept getting infected. That’s a very different case from someone going totally outside the rules or procedures.

      1. Sam says:

        Fair enough. I was also taking into consideration the helicopter example you gave. As you said the lieutenant commander took flak until the crack in the engine was discovered.

        The lieutenant commander was proven to be right but what would have happened if nothing was discovered to be wrong with the helicopter?

        When individuals deviate from orders or established procedures and their decision proves to be the correct one it is a good thing but it also undermines the overall structure that they are a part of. For every person who knows better there are often many more who think they know better and don’t.

        From everything I’ve read about the case Captain Crozier was in the right and the higher ups were at fault. Of course the dilemma those in authority often face is that admitting they were at fault undermines their authority as well as a belief in the integrity of the chain of command.

        1. He would have been in enormous trouble, but he was the best and most thorough pilot I ever flew with. He made it a point to work with the mechanics and know the details of the birds he flew. He was also the safety officer, and while he was with that outfit, there was never an aircraft incident or accident, which wasn’t true of the time before he arrived or the time after he went on to his next tour… and we were flying operations that put a lot of stress on old airframes [even back then the H-34 was considered old].

  2. Lourain says:

    Often the superior officers have to take into account other circumstances, that underlings may not be aware of. Unfortunately, in this case, the other circumstances were “Cover your ass.”

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