Monday, October 10, 2011

October 10th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Continuing from last week… My friend, ex-military, ex-airline pilot had breached communication and jeopardised safety, consequently being summoned to the tower by the airport manager…

The PA28 sat on the apron, undercarriage pushed to its limits, and I watched Fox walk towards the tower, through the rain, realising that my fight with him may have cost me a friendship. He did not look back, he was a proud man, and for him there would be a ‘logical explanation’ for the dangerous and unacceptable actions he had taken. I have since found this to be a common negative trait in the ‘ex-military’ pilot, and yet also a positive trait that they needed to do their jobs in crucial times.

The rain beat on me hard, so I went into the briefing room; whereupon a flock of aviators became my “Job’s Comforters”. All had been watching and listening via the radio, and all knew their side of the story!

Confused, I excused myself and found a quiet corner, one with a large world war two aircraft as a backdrop. I mulled it over.

‘If I had simply NOT gone, then I would have been accused of not trying.’

‘If I had allowed him to continue with his planned sortie, then I might not be alive (looking at the fall-out around me - that seemed very applicable!)’

‘Should I have simply told him straight ‘You are in the wrong’, this is not the way it should be done; and if I had, what would have happened?’

The more I considered the ‘alternative’ scenarios, the more it became clear that, on the balance of probabilities, I had made the right call. I realised that there were many short-term outcomes from this event that would have long-term repercussions. Then, I realised that it was normal, conflict is a part of safety (and development) – without it many ‘awareness’s’ as well as changes to the industry and procedures would never have come into play.

I spotted Fox returning from the Airfield Managers Office. Head held high, with a look of challenging defiance upon his broad face. He walked straight past me. I held out my hand, but I was invisible. The blame was ‘all on me’. He had made certain decisions that had led to the outcomes; I had simply acted in a responsive manner, in a greater interest, leading to a rapid and positive outcome. Clearly, he felt that it was all about ‘him and his reputation’. For me it was bigger than that – it was about lives, it was about the reputation of the industry, not that of an individual, not that of a friendship.

Fox went to the office and shut his ears. He made his own world. Everybody migrated away, conscious that he was in ‘one of those moods’ for which he was famous. Another instructor came up to me, suggesting that we ‘take a walk’. In the post-storm clarity-filled air, we walked past the museum section of the aerodrome, talking freely. He reassured me that the decision I had taken, ‘probably led to the most rapid outcome and a swift awareness of the problem to all on the ground’. However, he also advised me that ‘it is best to stay away from the man’ for a while. Staying away when I have not been in the wrong is not my strength, never was, and never will be.

The next day I tried to call Fox, went by his office, tried to catch his attention, but the goliath of aviation did all things possible to avoid me. All my communications and training were suddenly routed to another instructor, who, interestingly, embraced my style, and we flew well together – often accepting a challenge and responding to it, regularly in heated debate.

On a cross country flight one day my new instructor commented ‘you do realise Fox is paid by the flight, don’t you?’. Silence hung in the air, massaged by the noise of the engine thumping out its horsepower ahead of our feet. The penny dropped. That flight, the one that had nearly taken the lives of both Fox and I, and put in jeopardy the runway and staff at the airfield, had all been about money. The consequential upset, was also to do with money, for he was ‘banned from instruction’ for a disciplinary period by the management. All of this upset, loss of sleep and anguish was because the man saw making money more important than creating a safe and long term reputation, and all that was associated with it. I would never have believed it, but it struck me firmly.

I have come across many people whose only interest is for selfless development, even at the cost of their own pocket and perhaps lives. Sadly, I have come across orders of magnitude more people whose only interest is in their own pocket or ‘what is in it for me’ as was once said to me in a ‘high office’.

I will tell you what is in it for you, if you want to make the sacrifice, dedicate yourself to growing the opportunities for others, enabling growth at the bottom end, encouraging competition, giving rather than taking: You are quickly rewarded with peace of mind, restful sleep and the knowledge that your attitude is one that will last longest, coupled with disdain, rumour-mongering and possibly persecution from those who see it ‘differently’.

About ten years after the incident with Fox, I was at a dinner with the airline that had employed him. He sat at a corner table, alone, drinking whiskey, trying to catch the eye of anybody he could, apart from me. Then, a retired senior pilot, whom I had never heard of before, came up to me exclaiming ‘So, you are the one who called out Fox!’. It appeared that I had a reputation! I looked at the forlorn Fox, and then back at the white haired and waxed moustache sporting airline guru addressing me, ‘Yup, that would be me, I am afraid.’ The glass waving aviator looked me straight in the eye and said ‘I wish that I had had your courage when he worked for me, we were all scared to call him out. I know it was wrong, but we all thought profit was the best motive. You may have saved more lives than you realise!’

It was not a proud moment, for I could see the state that Fox had reached. So, I went over, we exchanged a few words. He clearly wanted me to ‘go away’, so I did.

As much as Bob Marley’s famous reggae song chants ‘Get up, stand up; stand up for your rights’, I will stick to my tough line of ‘Get up, stand up; try to make things right’ – even at the risk of losing friends and taking the ‘hardest route’ to my destination. Take my advice, whether it is in aviation or any other walk of life, ‘call it out’ make it known, the pain is short lived, but the benefits can last a lifetime – or longer!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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