High Flight Requires Risk

img_0077The passing of two of the great aviation masters in the last few weeks started me thinking about what forges great people like them.  The Aerospace Icons I am discussing here are Bob Hoover and John Glenn.  Both made incredible contributions to not just aviation but also our American way of life.  Mr. Hoover was a highly accomplished aviator, WW II fighter pilot, jet age test pilot, air show celebrity and Gentleman’s Gentleman.  He is known universally in aviation circles as the best “Stick and Rudder Pilot” ever… period.  Mr. Glenn was also an accomplished WW II pilot, test pilot, astronaut (twice!), successful U.S. Senator and honored leader.  He was the first American to orbit the earth which was incredibly important to our country in 1962.  The Russians had beat us into space and his mission was the first of many American sucesses in that arena, leading to our county’s reputation for being the global leader in technology.  He was the last surviving member of the Mercury 7 group of astronauts, America’s first astronauts.

“Both of these men showed Americans who we were and what our country would be.”

Dramatic experiences, natural talent and commitment to excellence forged these great men.  The experience was that of managing real risks.  Bob Hoover learned to fly so gracefully because”yanking and banking” made him air sick as a student, from his many experiences with field assembled aircraft during the war and experimental aircraft testing after.  He was the master at “dead stick” landings and dealing with emergencies.  Bob taught thousands of aviators how to be safe by demonstrating his unmatched capacity to “Fly the Feathered Edge“.   John Glenn was an engineer that was also a great pilot.  His fusion of engineering knowledge and piloting skills were displayed best during his successful handling of the thruster malfunction which occurred during his earth orbiting mission (Mercury Program, Friendship 7 mission).  Both of these men showed Americans who we were and what our country would be.

It has been said that there will never be aviators like these two men again.  Their skills were forged with exposure to higher levels of risk than can be found in the world of today.  Certainly war had a great impact on them, but I am not focusing on that as a go-forward consideration (I’m an optimist!).  Modern aircraft have much of the risk designed out thanks to men (and later women) like these that helped identify the weaknesses and effective solutions.  The regulatory environment is much more advanced and, frankly restrictive, to allow the types of flying that these men were formed by.  Our expectations as a society have changed to the point that it is now demanded that equipment and pilots are 100% fail-safe.  Of course the engineering has yet to meet this demand but it is closer than ever before.

The extreme experiences these aviators had are just not to be found anymore.  While in general this is a good thing, it also has a down-side.  Pilots are less equipped today to handle in-flight emergencies than in the past due to a phenomena known as Automation Over Reliance.  Over Reliance can create a deterioration of pilot flight skill proficiency.  “Use it or loose it”, essentially.  The aerospace community has begun to focus closely on this phenomena after events such as the crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport in mid 2013.  A European led project team named Man4Gen has recently released findings on it’s investigation of the primary issues with humans interacting with highly automated flight management systems that focuses on the concepts of Sensemaking and Situational Awareness.   I have been following the area of research and will be commenting further on it in another post.  This concept can be more broadly applied beyond aerospace as we move into the future of automation across all aspects of modern life.  In taking risk to unprecedentedly low levels with complex technology, are we creating other risks?

“We in HSE often pursue the perfect reduction of risk but, with no risk comes no reward.”

So what is the point of this post?  Several concepts are in my thoughts.  First, these men were one-of-a-kind examples of risk managers at the extreme and their methods can work for all of us.  Second, risk is not always bad, if managed properly, it teaches those involved how to be better in a wider range of situations.  We in HSE often pursue the perfect reduction of risk but, with no risk comes no reward.  In his remarkable treatise of the history and virtues of risk management, researcher Peter L. Bernstien observes that by utilizing a rational process of risk taking, innovators have provided the vital ingredient that has propelled science and enterprise into the world of speed, power, instant communication and sophisticated finance that marks the 21st century.  Lastly, and the impetus for this post, these were great men, who did incredibly important things for our country, and I want to celebrate their lives here.  They, and their kind, will be missed.

 “High Flight conveys beautifully the wonder and elation of being up there.”

The sonnet below is well known to aviators and astronauts.  It simultaneously captures the joy of flight and the emotions of fellow aviators when a pilot makes his or her “final flight” into the Heavens.  As an aviator I can tell you that it conveys beautifully the wonder and elation of being up there, in sole command of your own craft.  High Flight was composed by an American aviator in World War II after he had just completed a high altitude flight over England in a Spitfire being tested for high altitude performance.  He took the plane to 33,000 feet, possibly his first time that high.  He had gone where few had ever been before him.  The sonnet is the expression of the joy he felt during this thrilling endeavor.  The author lost his life a few weeks later in a mid-air collision during a routine flight, an abrupt reminder of the risks…

I too love this verse and am sending these great men off with it.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air… .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

This is the old late night TV station sign-off many Baby-Boomer’s and Gen Xer’s grew up with.  I didn’t fully comprehend it’s meaning then.  I do now…

 

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About Chet Brandon

I am a highly experienced Health, Safety and Environmental Professional for Fortune 500 Companies. I love the challenge of ensuring HSE excellence in process, manufacturing and other heavy industry settings. The connection of EHS to Sustainability is a fascinating subject for me. I believe that the future of industrial organizations depends on the adoption of sustainable practices.
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