By Joshua Wiedeman
“By seeking and blundering we learn. ” -Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
“Sir, you’re a little bit low on altitude again and right of course.”
This was probably the third time my PI (Copilot) had deviated from our assigned altitude and course on this given flight and it was one more thing that I really didn’t want to have to focus on, we had more on our plate at the moment than basic instrument flight to worry about. He made some attempts at correcting both issues with little success.
“I have the controls” I barked as I reached to grab the collective, cyclic, and pedals.
“Correcting altitude and course, please plug our next point into the GPS.” “Roger”, the 1LT responded as he began to attempt to program the GPS, accidentally deleting the current point and failing to plug in the next one.
My frustration continued to grow, though I couldn’t say I was altogether surprised given our previous flights as a crew. So far, this flight in solid Instrument conditions (in the clouds without outside visual references from the cockpit) had consisted of me programming all the radios and navigation equipment then taking back the flight controls to fix altitude, airspeed, and course. This time, before I could give him the flight controls and fix our GPS, “Murphy” struck.
“I have a Master Caution, Trim Light, and an ‘AS’ light illuminated”, the Lieutenant advised me. I searched my memory for any immediate steps that should be taken, coming up with nothing. “Roger”, I said as I reset the Master Caution and considered the impact this could have on the rest of the flight.
When it rains, however, it pours. Another Master Caution light illuminated, this time with a Main Module Chip light as well. This is one that everyone in the UH-60 community knows without hesitation, “Land as soon as Possible”. With an hour remaining on our flight plan, I decided to amend the plan and perform a preprogrammed Emergency GPS approach and by a miracle after working through a variety of other emergencies, we “broke out” of the clouds and landed the helicopter in a field.
Our Simulator period was over. In this case the part of “Murphy” was played by the most infamous Instrument Evaluator and Instructor Pilot in our organization who had been diligently providing simulated environmental and aircraft emergencies for us to respond to.
While we had “survived” the period, it was by far the most humbling and humiliating evaluation I had received at that point in my aviation career. The result, though I did pass, was a hard talk from the evaluator regarding my performance and knowledge of what was going on.
For some of us the words “surprised” and “disappointed” carry a very heavy impact when used to describe our performance. This was no exception. This scenario is not what I would consider to be a professional regret, (though I do regret my performance on that day), but the manifestation of my greatest professional regret. Lack of Ownership.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. ” (Lewis)
Though Integrity and Courage have always been among my most admired traits and I believe most of my peers and supervisors would classify me as abiding by them, the reality is that I know where my weaknesses lay.
Anyone that has studied the psychology of instruction is familiar with “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” and more specifically our need for Self Actualization. This is what I would describe to folks within our career-field as ownership.
It would be easy for me to come up with excuses for my performance as described above (and don’t think I haven’t tried doing this to myself).
- “I was still a little shaky from the night before” (a night in Germany after being deployed for months and not having any alcohol, you can see where that might lead),
- “I hadn’t flown instruments at all because there was a usable airspace structure where we were deployed”,
- “My PI was weak on the basics which caused me to be distracted”; you get the idea.
What is missing from these defenses though, because that’s exactly what they are, is ownership. My failures during that flight period all come back to a lack of the discipline that should have been found in the ownership of my profession. That issue was not a new issue but one that extended back to my first days in the unit.
I had become intimidated by the culture within our organization and responded by focusing more on trying to look good for the Instructors and Pilots in Command than actually caring about the mission. This left gaping holes in both my knowledge base and experience base that need not have existed. I was scared into only studying the things I believed would be asked on an evaluation and it let me down.
That year of deployment along with the mentorship of that Evaluator, another Instructor who instilled in me his passion for the Medevac mission, and a phenomenal Battalion Commander opened my eyes to that missing piece of my career. Now, being an Instructor myself, I try to teach this philosophy to young aviators and save them from having to learn this lesson through years of experience.
This lesson can be summed up as this: We exist within a career field that is more than just a job, it’s a profession. That being the case, it deserves our attention and diligence for its own sake, not for the sake of impressing others. Every bit of training we conduct, from our personal fitness to the detailed doctrine that we are expected to know and apply, should be for the purpose of owning our given mission and performing it at the highest level of proficiency. It’s all about accomplishing the mission.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942. Print
Joshua Wiedeman is an Aviation Safety Officer and UH-60 Instructor Pilot/Medevac Pilot for the Indiana Army National Guard. Notable missions include deployments in support of Kosovo Forces with 2-238th GSAB and various domestic disasters such as Hurricane Florence. He is currently the Lead Search and Rescue Pilot and OIC for the Indiana Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (IN-HART). Time spent outside of work is primarily spent with family, outdoor adventure, studying history and literature, and writing (it’s a work in progress).