Rules & Common Sense

Nose-Gear-CollapseRules can be a good thing.  We need them in our society for order, civility, and safety.

In the aviation community, pilots literally live and die by them.  It’s been said that a pilot’s Flight Manual (rule book) is written in blood; you don’t follow what’s in the rule book, bad things can and will happen.

In Navy/Marine Corps aviation, the rule book for all aircraft is the NATOPS flight manual.  In the opening paragraph of this manual is this blunt statement: “This manual contains vital and required information on all aircraft systems,  performance data, and operating procedures required for safe and effective operations…..Read this manual from cover to cover; it’s your responsibility to have a complete knowledge of its entire contents.

Pretty clear-cut and straight forward; you don’t follow the rules you’ve got a good chance of losing your wings, your aircraft, and your life.

There’s another statement in this opening paragraph that is equally powerful and important.  It states: “This manual, however, is not a substitute for common sense and sound judgement.

In early 2000 I was a military flight instructor teaching students how to fly the Cessna T-37.  On one particular flight I was evaluating/instructing a student on his fourth flight in the touch-and-go landing pattern. On our third landing, right after touch down, we were shocked to see four deer beginning to bound across the runway, on a direct collision course with our flight path.

We were in a very precarious position. Traveling around 100 mph on the runway, with four deer 800 feet in front of us, we didn’t have many options or much time to react.  In fact we were in blatant violation of three flight-manual “rules” that prevented a safe take-off.

First, we didn’t have enough power.  Rule book says you can’t take a T-37 off with less than 100% power on the engines.  Our engines were at 88%; slowly spooling up to full power.

Second, we didn’t have enough speed.  Rule book says you can’t take off with anything less than 105 knots.  We were at 88 knots; slowly accelerating with the notoriously sluggish engines.

Lastly, we were at 100% (full) flaps; which meant we had too much drag for take off.  Rule book says you shouldn’t take off with anything more than 50% (half) flaps.

Though the rules were stacked against us for getting airborne, common sense told us that it was not smart to hit four deer head-on, traveling 100 mph, with nothing to protect us but hollow sheet metal and a plexiglass canopy.

In the end it was the broken rule of 100% flaps that saved us.  Though we had too much drag with this setting, and not enough power to overcome this drag, we did have some extra lift.  Just enough lift in fact to “pop” the aircraft eight feet in the air; up and over the four deer allowing us to avoid hitting them head on.  Though I actually did hit two of the deer (hitting one with my nose gear and clipping another with my wing); the accident investigation concluded that I averted near certain fatality by choosing not to hit all four deer head on and instead choosing to break the “rules” and fly over the deer.

The reality is there’s no manual, set of rules, process, or law that can cover every situation or scenario.  This is certainly true in the above example and in aviation in general.  It’s true in leadership as well.

Too often we focus on being effective managers and making sure that all of our rules and processes are followed to the letter; sometimes at the expense of common sense.

As leaders we have to keep our eyes on the big picture and realize that rules are man-made and can’t deal with every possible contingency.

Leaders realize that rules and process are required, important and necessary; but leaders also realize that doing what is right sometimes is in direct conflict with what the rule book dictates.

Leaders understand there is no substitute for common sense and sound judgement.


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