Monday 3 January 2011


As some friends and colleagues know, I'm something of an aviation 'enthusiast'.

Er, to the point where on a trip to Zimbabwe last summer I flew a Boeing 747 on my laptop flight simulator into Johannesburg while the real Boeing 747 I was in flew into Johannesburg (arousing slight alarm in a fellow passenger sat nearby)...

Anyway, ask me sometime and I'll bore you with industry trends, technological advances and simply why flying is so amazing.

The point of this post, to kick off 2011, is to sound an aviation-inspired cautionary note: don't let your pride get in the way of your judgement.

I was saddened to read of the accident on 28 July last year in which a C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane of the US Air Force crashed during a practice flight for an air show.

A report published in December concluded that the pilot pushed the boundaries of safe flying just too far - apparently disregarding the safety of the three crew flying with him.

The following video shows the flight from take off until a few moments before impact.

The plane ascends very steeply, much slower than the USAF's stated minimum speed. It levels off at only half the required altitude. It banks to the left at 60 degrees (the USAF's maximum is 45) and then to the right at the same angle.

During this final manoeuvre the speed had dropped significantly below the stall speed (when the wings can no longer keep the plane in the air), triggering audible warnings in the cockpit. The pilot routinely ignored these warnings and told others to do the same, saying they were inaccurate. But this stall was serious and the co-pilot warned him three times about the loss of control.

For some reason he left it too late to try to correct the mistake.

It was not even as if this was without precedent. This video shows a B-52 bomber crashing in 1994 in a similar way while practicing for an air show. The pilot broke similar safety regulations and he also died with three crew members.

So what are the lessons for you?
First, put yourself in the place of the pilots. Pushing boundaries is very important in any field if you are to outperform your competitors. But not listening to your own judgement - or the judgement of others - on when to stop is foolish.

Was it pride that led to these crashes? Maybe. "I'm not going to listen to them; what do they know? I'll show them..."

The lesson is clear.

But now put yourself in the place of these pilots' leaders. In both crashes the blame was placed equally on pilot error and on the USAF culture that allowed such disregard for regulations, just because the pilots in question were outstanding.

There is surely some echo here of what happened in the risk-taking culture of the financial markets pre-recession.

The lesson is less obvious here but one practical example comes to mind because I dealt with this just before Christmas. If you manage a team, do you take responsibility for ensuring that everyone with laptops has passwords enabled? No? What would happen, therefore, if one of them lost their laptop and the data on it was stolen?

If you're the pilot
The strongest lesson, however, must be for each of us in our own roles.

I am ultimately responsible for performing the job I have been given. How aware am I of my pride? How well do I listen to my own judgement or that of others?

As we head into an even more challenging economic environment in the UK, with austerity measures beginning to bite, can you balance prudence with ambition? Especially if - as in our case - you have bucked the trend of previous years?

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