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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Did You Know and When Did You Know It?

The iconic office complex, Watergate, has come to symbolize scandal.  Ever since the 1970’s when political hijinks erupted into a constitutional crisis and the collapse of a presidency, “gate” has become the suffix to describe shame and disgrace.  In most cases, the label comes not for the initial transgression, but for the cover up or failure to take action.   It is no surprise that politics is fertile ground for this behavior.  The very public scandals of President Bill Clinton and Senator Edward Kennedy are clear examples.  Inappropriate trysts are commonplace and usually tolerated among the powerful.  Deception or failure to accept the consequences of the events is where it all comes apart.  Sometimes the victims are only the loved ones exemplified by the infidelity of Tiger Woods and Governor Schwarzenegger.  Other times, as in the case of Michael Vick, it’s the vulnerable and innocent that are exploited.  Those are the hardest to accept.

This week the career and reputation of one of the most revered college football coaches of all time came to and end.  Penn State’s Joe Paterno, or JoePa left his position in disgrace as Head Coach of the Nittany Lions after 46 years and 409 victories.  His biggest loss and the one that ended his career was when he forfeited against “doing the right thing”.  JoePa will have to answer the most feared question a person in a position of responsibility will ever be asked, “What did you know and when did you know it?”  That question, with its implied follow-up, “What did you do about it?”  has ended many high level careers.

Why is that such a powerful question?  It is powerful because the question gets to the essence of responsibility, leadership and trust.  Individuals in positions of authority and leadership must be held to a higher standard.  They are the decision makers.  They have the power to influence outcomes.  What they do matters.  In Joe Paterno’s case, a grown man he knew well and had authority over was exploiting a young boy.  When it was made known to Coach Paterno that there was inappropriate touching of a boy, whether consensual or forced, on University property, he had to act decisively.  However, he chose to pass the buck.  That’s not good enough when the innocent are involved.  Anyone in Joe Paterno’s position would be required to ensure that there was a thorough and open investigation. 

What does all this have to do with aviation?  Everything.  Most Captains who find themselves passing the buck instead of doing the right thing never live to personally answer what they knew and when then knew it.  The answer is found in the cockpit voice recorder transcript.  Did they know the runway was slippery?   Did they know there were mountains?   Did they know the weather was bad? 

One difference between airline pilots and other decision makers is that they seldom get the recognition they deserve for doing the right thing.  Their victories are commonplace and uncelebrated.  Most would probably like to keep it that way.  They get their reward from successfully delivering their airplane and its precious cargo safe and sound to the destination.  They know it is better to be extra cautious than to risk the well being of those whose trust they have accepted. 

Another thing that is different between airline pilots and other decision makers is that the stakes are much higher.  Airline pilots risk losing more than a commission, a promotion, fame and recognition. Fortunately Joe Paterno will survive to regret his mistakes. 

A description by Gerry Bruggink, which I have referenced before, very perceptibly describes “passing the buck” by pilots, “uncritical acceptance of easily verifiable assumptions”.  What did they know and when did they know it?

Post Script

I wrote this blog a few days ago, but did not post it.  I do not want to offend anyone or appear judgmental.  I only want to share my thoughts and give others the opportunity to agree or offer a different viewpoint.

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