Commentary

August 30, 2013

‘Arm the chute’

Col. Dan Daetz
412th Test Wing vice commander

The following is fictional … but, not far-fetched

“Departure, Recover … Controls Release.” The test conductor stared at the telemetry stream while listening for other cues from the pilot through the headset.

“30,000 feet,” called the chase pilot, flying in a descending orbit around the test aircraft as it gyrated erratically toward the ground.

“Go Auto Recovery,” added the TC, with anxiety in his voice that he tried to control, even as the test pilot tried to regain control of his spinning craft.

“23,000 feet,” added the chase pilot. Options were narrowing fast.

“Deploy, Deploy, Deploy,” came the command from the TC.

The spin chute, housed in a ballistic canister at the tail end of the floundering test jet, was the final safeguard now. The parachute was designed to deploy as a stabilizer and then detach from the aircraft when it was flying straight again.

But this was not to be.

“No chute,” called the chase pilot firmly, still following the stricken craft on its vertical trajectory.
What was going on in the tumbling jet’s cockpit was unclear, even to the TC, as he listened with alarm to the grunts and groans from the test pilot. What was clear, as the TC eyed the altitude readout on his screen, was that terra firma was rapidly approaching.

No more time.

“Eject! Eject! Eject!” the TC and chase pilot keyed their radios nearly simultaneously.

The next sound heard over the airwaves was the shrill beacon from the ejection seat, activated automatically as it rocketed away from the doomed jet, now plummeting to the desert floor.

Fortunately the pilot’s parachute worked better than the spin chute. But as the orange fireball erupted and a thunderous tremor echoed across the hills, the test team’s thoughts gravitated to the question, “Why didn’t the spin chute work?”

Days later, when the wreckage was safe to examine, when the pilot and control room interviews were over, the telemetry studied completely, it became clear.

The spin chute would have worked perfectly.

The switch in the cockpit, the one that, once set to “arm,” would have allowed the test pilot to deploy the chute under disorientation and stress, was fully functional.

But the test pilot had neglected to set that switch in flight. The TC forgot to cross-check its position. The chase pilot did not listen for radio confirmation that this critical safeguard was ready for action.
They forgot to arm the chute.

You may not be a test pilot, test conductor, or chase pilot. But certainly, at some point in your life, you have participated in activities that involve heightened risk. Perhaps you enjoy a day relaxing at the beach. Sounds great, but you would still plan on bringing sunscreen, right? If hiking in the hills is more your style, you wouldn’t hit the trail without water and other essentials. How about a long, late-night drive on the interstate? Certainly you’d plan periodic stretch breaks for gas, snacks and coffee. Some have even more extreme tastes: scuba, skydiving, motocross. Undoubtedly, you double-check your equipment, have the right safety gear, and have a friend along for backup. Knowing that things could go wrong, you have a plan, and you execute the plan when necessary. In other words, you “arm the chute.”

But sometimes we fail to recognize the risk. What’s wrong with a few coworkers hanging out after a long week in the office? Probably nothing…but is there drinking involved? Will there be a true friend there who will stay sober and watch my back? Do we have a safe plan to get home?

Perhaps you’ve been a bit sloppy in your personal risk management, but so far you’ve gotten away with it. The test pilot in our story may have left the chute unarmed dozens of times, but when he really needed that backup, it wasn’t ready. Maybe you’ve allowed the folks you supervise to “do their own thing” without considering the risks. Our story’s test conductor did the same thing–even though he was responsible for safe mission accomplishment. Or, more commonly, perhaps you have been the silent bystander to a risky situation that was on the verge of going out of control. Likewise, the chase pilot could have caught the test pilot’s mistake well before watching him tumble toward the dirt.

It takes a team effort to prevent risks to our people from diverging toward disaster. We must recognize setups for failure. Usually, it just takes a few moments to think…to question…to care. But those thoughtful moments of sobriety will prepare us to operate within a safe envelope, where we can enjoy the “wild blue yonder” with confidence. The alternative is to revel in our presumed invincibility, “fly by the seat of our pants” and then end up on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

“Chute is Armed” … “Deploy, Deploy, Deploy” … “Good Chute”… “Recovered.”




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