Back in our first days of FCLPs in Kingsville and Meridian, every carrier pilot learned that predictability and procedural compliance take students much further toward the end goal of carrier qualification than does occasional, flash-in-the-pan brilliance. The instructors develop trust in “the process” – in this case, the student’s ability and willingness to adhere to procedure. We don’t “trust” that a pilot is going to fly an OK pass every time, but we do trust that he’s not going to lead the low. We don’t “trust” that a pilot is going to have a 100-percent boarding rate, but we do trust that she isn’t going to spot the deck and then make an unsafe play for the four wire. The difference is subtle but important in a profession with such narrow margins for error. Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t value the pilot who has a consistently great GPA and boarding rate – we should all be so fortunate. Instead, I am suggesting that if both the instructor (or fleet LSO) and the pilot trust the process, we can develop a reasonable expectation that the grades and boarding rates will take care of themselves. More importantly, we’ll meet the overarching objective of getting safely back aboard the ship. It is crucial for both parties to trust the process – trust the system.
Based on the timing of this post, some readers might be asking a logical question: what about when the system – the process – doesn’t work the way we think it should? Let’s stick with the carrier environment and look at an experience many of us can relate to. EVERY single carrier pilot has flown a rails pass into the three wire and then stood smartly while Paddles read him a Fair. It stings. We know we worked our tails off to fly a solid pass and are disappointed to learn that Paddles thinks less of our work than we do. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all experienced this debrief, and if we’re really honest with ourselves, most of us will admit there were times when we didn’t handle the situation as well as we should have. Did we argue? Did we roll our eyes? Did we sulk back to the JO eight-man, grumbling the whole way about those lying, blind, good-for-nothing LSOs? We forget that our reaction to disappointment says more about our character than do the patches on our jacket or the colored tiles on the wall. We forget that there are principles and goals that dwarf our personal ambition. The best pilots take the debrief in stride and continue plugging away. The best pilots, though not immune to disappointment, understand that there is more than personal satisfaction and affirmation involved here. The best pilots – the best officers – understand that though they didn’t get recognized with the grade they felt they deserved, the process worked. They got back aboard safely, which we dare not forget is the ultimate objective.
Let’s stick with the theme, but play with a hypothetical. Let’s suppose that after being read his Fair, the pilot went to his Skipper and complained about the gross injustice that had just occurred. Ideally, the boss would point out to this pilot what a privilege it is to be serving his nation in such an impressive manner, and that his complaints call into question his understanding of selfless service. Hopefully, the skipper pointed out to the pilot that being allowed to fly gray jets, orange and white jets, helicopters, or big lumbering props for the Navy is a damn good deal, one that many strive for and few achieve. Not satisfied with this response, though, the pilot boldly decides to approach CAG to discuss the sub-par work of his staff LSOs. Fortunately for the complainant, CAG is sympathetic to the struggle and orders the grade changed. Of course, there are no secrets on the boat, and word travels fast that grades are negotiable. You didn’t get the grade you thought you earned, the grade you thought you deserved? Go to CAG. He’ll hear your story and might even help right the apparent wrongs of the world. In the process of doing so, he’ll marginalize his LSOs and undermine the foundation on which the entire enterprise rests. CAG will send the message that getting what you want is more important than larger organizational objectives. Now, pilots know that they don’t necessarily have to bring their best each and every time they roll out behind the ship. Sure, they’ll work hard enough to not kill themselves, but why strive for repeated excellence when you can show up with “good enough,” and then count on negotiating your way to a better grade? What can we surmise about the level of trust the LSOs have in the pilots and vice versa? Remember, this “system” only works if both parties trust one another to place organizational objectives ahead of individual gratification and self-interests.