Break the Rule, But Don’t Give Up

“We can’t break the rules!  They keep us alive!”

(Deep breath.)  “Calm down.  What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the MASTER WARNING light we just saw informing us that the tail-rotor gearbox has pieces of metal floating around in the oil.  That means the tail-rotor could be coming apart and seize at any moment.  We need that tail-rotor!  The aircraft manual says we must ‘Land as soon as Possible,’ which means the first available area.  We are flying over available areas.  We should land!”

(Another deep breath.  He’s young, don’t mess up this teachable moment.)  “Look, we were just performing some maneuvers which reduced the g-forces on the aircraft.  Chances are there were already some ferrous pieces of metal lying on the bottom of the gearbox.  When we performed the ‘bunt’ the lowered gravity probably caused those pieces to float up.  The magnet grabbed them resulting in the MASTER WARNING light.  We are over the beach.  I do not believe we need to land on the beach and incur a logistical nightmare to confirm that the gearbox isn’t disintegrating.  I am going to fly to the nearest runway and land there.”

“But…”

(Okay, now’s the time to make it clear the decision has been made.)  “No ‘but’.  Here’s the thing: If at any point there is even a hint of any sort of problem, we will land at the first available area.  That’s the plan you need to hold me to.  Anything else, even bad weather, and we’re heading to the ground.  Deal?”

“Okay.  I can agree to that.  Let’s just hurry up and get there.”

Today, I still question if I made the right decision.  I know that dying because I didn’t want to inconvenience some tourists and mechanics, let alone embarrass myself, wouldn’t have been smart.  Just the same, I did not believe the tail-rotor gearbox actually had a problem.  We had all had metal ‘chip detector’ lights illuminate before.  There were so many false alarms in fact, that it was difficult to ever believe that there was a problem.  Just the same, the book said we should have landed, so we should have landed.

Then again, I am living proof that we didn’t need to land.  We weren’t actually in danger.  How did I know?  Where did I get the confidence from to break the rules?  I got it from listening to the old pilots.  As you get older as a pilot, you learn that rules will need to be broken.  Policies will need to be ignored.  There is just no way that policies and rules can be written for every conceivable situation.

The important thing when breaking rules is to set new rules.  When breaking rules, don’t go totally freestyle.  Just because you need to break a rule, doesn’t mean that you no longer believe in the value of rules.  Naturally, pilots developed a five step process to follow when breaking rules.

Step 1.  Get Feedback.  Maybe someone else has been in a similar situation.  Maybe not.  The important thing is to ask.

Step 2.  Make a decision.  In the above scenario, I decided to fly to the closest runway.

Step 3.  Plan carefully.  While we were discussing the merits of this decision, we were navigating to the nearest runway, coordinating our new flight plan with air traffic control, and ensuring we had enough fuel to execute the plan.

Step 4.  Set limits.  Breaking rules isn’t what kills pilots.  Continuing to break the rules is what kills pilots.  Break a rule, but always set a limit to the new rule.  If you find yourself bumping up against the new limit, time to really get conservative and land.

Step 5.  (Most important)  Brief the plan.  We don’t live in a void.  Other people help keep us accountable.  If we don’t tell others what the plan is, no one will be able to help us stick to it.  In the above example, I set the new limit very conservatively to show the rest of the crew that while I didn’t believe we were in any danger, I took the situation very seriously.  When they heard that one random light bulb burning out, or one reported thunderstorm in the area would convince me to land, they bought into my decision.  A great instructor taught me that three little problems, no matter how unrelated, equal one big problem.  Big problems should be handled on the ground.  Therefore, make the conservative decision and land the aircraft.

As should be expected by now, these five steps transfer perfectly to life as well.  Life has no comprehensive rule book.  Just the same, there are codes of behavior that should generally be adhered to.

For example, let’s say you’re one of the lucky few to have never had revolving credit card debt.  One day life finally happens to you in such a way that you need to leave $100 on your card.  What should you do?  Only you will know the truth of the situation, but chances are you need to break your rule.  So break it.  Just don’t forget that there is a force, where it gets it’s strength we’ll never know, which tempts you to give up the good fight.  You’ll find yourself needing more and more things you can’t actually afford.

To avoid the credit pitfall, act like a pilot.  Ask for feedback, make a decision, plan carefully, set limits, and tell someone the new plan.

Don’t give up on rules, just because you’ve had to break some.  I’m counting on your being there for me in the future.

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