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Got any HF?

The aviation community attracts a certain personality type. Most of us have a "can do" attitude, want to succeed, and are competitive by nature: generally "Type A" personalities. These characteristics drive us to succeed, but in so doing, we may find ourselves pushing aside certain distractions in our life. Most of us learn early on to compartmentalize, so we can focus on our job in the cockpit. But how do we recognize when the distractors are too great? At what point do we admit we have too much going on and need to step back?

I was at an HSL squadron preparing for my second deployment. I had deployed once as a helicopter second pilot (H2P), and qualified as a helicopter aircraft commander (HAC). I had also earned qualifications as a night-vision-goggle instructor (NVGI), and most recently, a functional-check pilot (FCP). My assignment as the detachment maintenance officer on a carrierstrikegroup (CSG) deployment kept me very busy. Besides my work responsibilities, I had a lot going on in my personal life-much more, it turns out, than I was willing to admit, even to myself.

I didn't realize my level of distraction until I had made a mistake. I was assigned to the FCF crew , on my third FCF since being designated an FCP. We also were flying one of my detachment's aircraft, and I felt self-imposed pressure to do all I could to complete the FCF and help my maintainers.

We completed the ground checks in the early afternoon. As we prepared for the in-flight checks, we kept getting delayed for one reason or another. By the time we were ready to launch, about 30 minutes were left until sunset.

During my preparation for HAC, and again for FCP, I carefully had studied OpNavInst 3710.7. I had read the section which states functional-check flights should be conducted during daylight hours in VMC. I knew this rule for my HAC board, I knew it when I completed my FCP exam, and I knew it on all other FCFs I had flown. However, on this day, I allowed myself to misinterpret this rule and briefed my crew: "We don't have enough time to complete all in-flight checks. We'll launch, do FCF checks until sunset, then knock it off and RTB." At no time did I, or my crew, question the logic of this plan. We launched, did what FCF checks we could, and once the sun had set, we turned back for home. Only then did I realize I was flying an aircraft still in an FCF status, and thus was unproven for regular flights at night. We returned to base, shut down, and I told my chain of command about my mistake.

It was days later before I fully could take stock of what was going on in my life and how it had affected my judgment that day. The stress of dealing with the serious illness of a loved one had affected me more than I realized. One person put it best by observing, "You had a lot on your plate." I had allowed the distractions of my work life and my personal life to interfere with my ability to make a sound decision in the cockpit. I thought I could compartmentalize everything, when in reality, I had not dealt with the stressors in an effective manner. I am thankful I did not make an error in judgment that led to injury or aircraft damage.

THIS INCIDENT GAVE ME two important lessons. The first focused on the failure to communicate. I failed to tell my chain of command about the stress in my personal life. I failed to communicate properly with my crew. I told them my plan, but I never solicited their feedback.

Communication is a two-way process. It cannot succeed unless you clearly pass information and then solicit feedback to make sure everyone comprehends. Everyone must be included in the decision-making process.

The second lesson was one of self-assessment. I did not take time to identify all my human-factor stressors and assess how they would affect me in the cockpit. Every crew member who steps aboard an aircraft has some stressors in his/her life. As professional aviators, we must take an honest look at ourselves and decide if we are capable of accomplishing our mission while dealing with stressors beyond the norm. We must communicate openly with the crew and the chain of command, so others can help manage the risk at the right level.

Every time I now brief before a flight, I think a lot more carefully during our ORM assessment when the question is asked, "So, does anyone have any human factors?"

Lt. Lessard flies with HSL-49.

By Lt. Jeff Lessard
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Title Annotation:the "human factor" in aircraft piloting
Author:Lessard, Jeff
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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