By Lt. Col. Paul Pethel
19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron
Have you ever led a group activity when someone questioned a decision? How did you react? Did you objectively analyze the input and discuss before committing to action, or did you have a different reaction?
I was seven years old when I learned the basics of swimming the wrong way - by nearly drowning. On a typical summer day my brother and his friend, who were 11, decided to take me with them to engage in what we all considered a pretty exciting activity - boat flipping. There was a large pond in our neighborhood, and kids would paddle out in a neighbor’s small boat and flip it to hang over the sides and swim around/under/over, etc. The boat of choice was an old Sunfish sailboat that had no mast, no keel, no rudder--it was trashed, but floated when overturned--a pretty good attribute in case you got swamped in rough water.
I was excited to finally be included in some “big kid” event as we cut through yards to reach the water’s edge. Strangely, the little Sunfish was missing that day, so my elders decided to use the next best thing, a standard aluminum Jon boat. I couldn’t swim at the time and was both nervous and excited, but my brain still registered a difference. I’d watched them do this before and recognized the beat up white Sunfish as the only boat they’d used.
I asked my brother and his pal if this boat floated when flipped...they declared, in unison, “of course it will float -- it’s a boat!”
This was spoken as if obvious, and they didn’t want to be bothered with stating the obvious – because it was hot and there was a pond that needed jumping into. I didn’t ask for a life jacket because this boat was going to float, and I was just going to hang onto the sides until we had had enough. No assessment, no evaluation, just complete dismissal. I was like most little brothers and had unconditional faith in what my big brother said, so out we rowed to the center of the pond. Without any hesitation, they started rocking the boat and after a couple of good dips it took on water and started to sink!
In my panic, I saw my brother and his pal exchange a bug-eyed look, which would have been comical in different circumstances. It told me everything I needed to know, they had no clue what would happen when they flipped this boat. There we were floundering in the water, and I remember watching the stern of that trusty old Jon boat slip below the surface. I started gyrating with the best of them, sucking in mouthfuls of water. As I continued my death throes, I decided it would be safer to climb my brother and stand on his head. Of course, he shoved me off, screaming we’d both be dead if I choked him (as if that was a good compromise). Somehow we made it to the edge of the water after what seemed like an eternity. As the three of us lay there gasping, my brother looked at his friend and said “I had no idea that thing would sink.”
Sometimes, the newest and most inexperienced set of eyes can be the best thing your team has. Sometimes, even the youngest and newest member of a team can identify a hazard. Our Airmen who’ve just joined us from technical training and the First Term Airmen Center are our newest eyes, and even though they may not have much time in service, they can definitely spot issues in processes we’ve been doing for years. That’s exactly the danger. We may have been doing it incorrectly for years and gotten complacent. We may even hear, but gloss over their questions because we don’t fully understand what we’re doing ourselves.
If you’re familiar with the tragic fatality at Charleston AFB, S.C., that resulted in a C-17 maintainer being crushed to death by a flight control surface, you can understand the need to take inputs and address them -- and if you can’t address them, stop what you’re doing until you can.
We owe it to our Airmen to take their inputs, listen to their questions and address them fully -- not marginalize them because they just joined the team. I am consistently amazed at the quality of young Airmen that come into our squadrons every day.
They’re articulate, intelligent and committed -- they are the team and we have to lead and coach them the right way if we’ll be successful.
Our newest members have faith in what we tell them because we can demonstrate proficiency and explain down to minute detail why we do things a certain way. When your team members raise issues, how will you respond?
That boat’s probably still on the bottom of the pond, so there’s no real evidence of our collective brain dump, but I came through unscarred. Ironically, my brother went on to spend 11 years as a Navy search-and-rescue swimmer before earning his commission -- he finally got signed off on the proper way to conduct a water rescue; and yes, I still talk to him!