What I Learned from Crashing a Jet: Part 3 — The Importance of Clarifying Your Values

Having a firm grasp of our values offers many benefits. They serve as guideposts in decision-making, build a sense of purpose, and develop our moral compass. Through adolescence, we tend to take on the values of the institutions in our life, including figures we hold in high esteem or organizations we belong to. But as we age, we start to create our sense of self by reflecting on what is personally meaningful to us and shedding light on our particular values. 

This endeavor can pay off in adverse situations because when we fully comprehend our values, it creates a foundation to fall back on. However, simply defining our moral underpinning does not mean we can claim to have a mastery of it; we must strive to hold to it each day. The day of my mishap was no different. While I could have had a better record regarding my integrity, it enabled me to weather the storm.

One in the Loss Column

Coach John Wooden’s legendary Pyramid of Success – the one hung behind Ted Lasso’s desk – defines integrity as “purity of intention.”  We can be transparent with our intent by living up to our values and developing a true sense of right and wrong. My mishap had two opportunities to demonstrate integrity; I lost one, and the other proved successful.

After the morning flight, we had an impromptu all-officers meeting to discuss the earlier mishap; the commander asked if we felt safe to head back to the boat that afternoon. I did not feel 100 percent certain about this course of action then. But I looked around the room, and no one else objected to the proposal. So, I took the cue from my peers and went along with the decision to press forward.

At the meeting’s conclusion, instructors directed us to prepare for our flight back to the boat. I felt tired at this point in the day, particularly since I did not sleep soundly the night before. To wake myself up, I went to the head (also known as a restroom) to splash water on my face. I remember a peer of mine coming in, and one of us stated, “I can’t believe we are doing this,” and the other said, “I can’t believe it either.”  So, I knew at least two of us felt we were pushing a lousy situation. How many others felt the same way? Despite the mounting concerns, I did not take these apprehensions to our leadership. I was not honest with them – I failed in my integrity. I often wonder if anything would have changed if I had shared my thoughts with the commander or the group. Maybe they felt the same way. 

Today, when I talk to new leaders, I discuss the significance of listening to your gut. In a group setting, we often go along with the majority and hide our instincts out of fear or peer pressure. But when we ignore our intuition, we deprive another input for decisions, and as it turned out, I knew at least one other person in the room felt the same way I did. So, trust your gut and share your views. It may offer your team another opportunity to reevaluate a decision.

Bounce Back

While I lost one opportunity to maintain my integrity, another soon arrived. As I lay in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I remember the Emergency Medical Technician being very focused on their job and asking me various questions. However, I was distracted by a prevailing thought going through my head, “I am in so much trouble.”  The feelings accompanying this thought were unpleasant, but there was no escaping them. At this point, I began the process of acceptance. 

There was no avoiding the situation, no running away, and no brushing it off. Something had gone wrong – no getting away from it. While it still took a few hours for the gravity of the situation to sink in fully, I began to accept my circumstances and shift my focus toward making sense of the problem. What occurred during the flight? Then, like a punch to the gut, I suddenly became aware of my blunder—the anti-skid switch. 

The T-45 Goshawk has an anti-lock brake system like the one found in most modern automobiles. This ‘anti-skid’ system has a master arm/disarm switch. The procedures at the time were to ‘disarm’ the mechanism on our flight to the aircraft carrier. Once a pilot makes an arrested landing or “traps” aboard the carrier, they must make very tight turns as the aircraft directors maneuver traffic on the deck. Disarming the system permits a pilot to lock a brake so the aircraft can pivot on the tire. However, once a pilot returns to a shore-based installation, arming the brake system prevents a wheel from locking up and causing a ‘bullseye’ or blown tire. 

Pilots rely on checklists to ensure systems are activated when needed and reduce errors in the cockpit. As previously discussed, the anti-skid switch was on two different checklists, the ‘Feet-Wet/Feet-Dry Checklist’ and the ‘Landing Checklist.’  Pilots execute the Feet-Wet/Feet-Dry Checklist anytime the aircraft crosses from a land to a water environment or vice versa. 

During my return flight earlier that day, I correctly executed my checklists to arm the system and land uneventfully at NAS Cecil Field. However, the afternoon flight was a different story. As soon as I diverted on a bingo profile, I was distracted by my performance on the boat and how that would impact my future. My preoccupation with this thought negatively impacted my situational awareness. I accepted a destination change – directed by the lead/safe instructor – to an unfamiliar airfield 28 miles closer. I quickly became task saturated with executing my approach checklist, looking for approach plates (printed maps detailing specific flight procedures for an airport), tuning up navigation aids and frequencies, and keeping the aircraft on the flight profile. My lack of awareness impacted the safe conduct of the flight to the point where I missed a crucial checklist and omitted the aircraft anti-skid from the landing checklist, so the brakes were not armed. This fact became apparent to me on the way to the hospital.

Once an aircraft accident occurs in the U.S. Navy, several things transpire. First is the recovery phase, where all aircrew members are rescued and taken to a medical facility for care and evaluation. The second is an investigative phase, which typically includes a safety and legal investigation. Lastly is an administrative phase, which determines the future of any aircrew involved. During the inquiries, I consciously chose to be honest, open, and forthright about my experience with the safety and legal investigators. I owned up to neglecting my checklists and leaving the anti-skid switch in the ‘disarm’ position. While it was not a great feeling to admit my oversight – given the unknown outcome of the process – it was freeing to get it out in the open. 

My decision to share truthful facts helped my case to return to flight training in the administrative phase. I frame the decision to new leaders this way – we will err in life, and sometimes these situations will be tremendously embarrassing. While our fight-or-flight instincts may push us toward hiding our errors, our conscious choice to admit our faults permits us to look in the mirror daily, knowing that we did the right thing by using our moral compass to maintain our integrity.

While we may not live up to our values in all cases, there is always another day to start anew. I finished with a tie game with integrity during this mishap, but it proved a life lesson I consider a win. What are your values? When have you been challenged to uphold them? How have your values gotten you through adversity? What are you learning about yourself?

P.S. – Clarify your values and learn how they can put you on a solid footing by working with a coach. Find out more right here to resurrect your potential.

Photo: Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash