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  • Patricia Northrup

The Dark and Stormy Night…..Part 1

“Just another one of those days” means something totally different at 35,000 feet than it does on your living room couch.  Settle in…this story is a long one.

Last night, I flew all night to Raleigh Durham (RDU) and it may as well have been a trip around the world with all the things that got jammed into 8 hours of work.

Once you take on the responsibility of “Captain”, you begin to think differently.  Not only do you think of the safety of your passengers, airplane and crew… also have to think in terms of what I call, “from the hearing backwards.”

My thought of the potential “hearing” developed on a mission to Herat, Afghanistan in 2011.  Our crew left Bagram Air Base headed for western Afghanistan to a field run by the Italians.  We had heard that there was actually an Italian Restaurant and we looked forward to getting a good meal.  Through a series of delays, it became necessary to just drop off our passengers and take off immediately as we were only allowed to operate at the field in daylight and the sun was setting.  That Italian dinner became the last thing on my mind.

We were soon battling an administrative error that was preventing our departure. The Italian airfield command charged us with landing without permission and they were going to detain us until it was straightened out.  Hmmmmm…..potentially miss my window for returning to the safety of my base because of a clerical error??  I think not.  Not to mention the 4 people and 80 million dollar airplane that were my personal responsibility.

I went to the back of the airplane to get matters straightened out and a very Italian looking gentlemen in a blue,  “Members Only” (remember those) jacket was becoming increasingly agitated.  As I am watching the sun setting before my eyes, I decided to invoke a military option that I had heard about but never used.  “DUE REGARD”.  Basically, it is your carte blanche to deviate from the regulations as you deem it necessary for the safety of your crew, passengers, airplane and/or mission.

The Italians thought differently of my plan to leave and as I taxied the airplane, they attempted to block our entry on the runway by moving their pickup truck to block the paved taxi ways.  Well, I surprised them.  As the sun was setting in the distance, I made a quick turn, off-roaded my dirt capable C-130 to make my way to the paved runway and took off.  Due Regard.  We were all headed home to safety.

Hmmm……who is going to hear about this before I land?  What now?  I used that 3 hour trip home to start my thought process “from the hearing backward”.  When you begin to organize your thoughts and really think through what was driving your decisions.  What is most important after you secure the safety of those counting on you, is that you are confident you can stand in front of someone with like experience in similar situations, explain what you did and have them understand the reasoning and logic that led you along your path.  This does not mean that your decisions are all correct.  It does mean that you acted as best you could in the circumstance presented to you with the information available to you.

That simple explanation of situational cause and effect has been the cornerstone of my leadership confidence ever since and it was again today.

If you have ever watched “Air Disasters” on the Discovery Channel you know that it is never one thing that brings a flight to an unplanned conclusion.  It is usually a series of events where different people miss various things that all contribute to a synergistic negative outcome…the infamous “Error Chain”.   I am always thinking about being the person that breaks any given error chain.  Every flight has them and we have barriers to be sure that we break them; checklists, training, redundant systems, etc etc.

Last night was especially challenging.  As I arrived at the airport everything seemed normal, I briefed the flight attendants, met my First Officer (FO) and settled into my seat to “build my nest” (that is the term we use for all the set up we require to have all our flight things up, running and available for our flight).    I realize that this airplane is old…..really old.  The weather radar is adequate….not great.  The standby instruments are straight out of the 60s….but they work fine and dang it…….my fancy David Clark noise cancelling headset is not compatible with this particular model of airplane.  I rummage around the flightdeck for a company headset..found one, again, adequate, not great and try to sanitize it as best I can.  I am tired already and I have yet to really sit down in my seat.

Then the First Officer points out that one of our hydraulic systems pressure is reading too high.  Maintenance comes out to the airplane and has to relieve some of the pressure from the system.  This requires a bit of time for the procedure and a bit more for the paperwork……57 min late but we have avoided a potential hydraulic problem..good on my FO….potential problem avoided….he broke a  potential “error chain” by catching that overpressure.

Off we go to Raleigh Durham…we are a little over 2 hours into the flight and all of a sudden all of my instrument screens go blank……gone…….what???  You know how you hear the story of the “dark and stormy night”…..hmm…..oh wait.  They are back……as if nothing happened at all…….we commonly call that the “Airbus fix” and is pretty common in an electronic airplane……you may get a message here and there and the system fixes itself……but all my screens??  I may need those.

ZAP!!  They are gone again??  And as quick as they went off, they came back.   Now this is where things really begin to get interesting…….catch my next blog for the rest of the story.


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