By Col. Steven Weld
Commander, 314th Maintenance Group
A wise maintenance operations officer with whom I served many years ago, would often compare her experiences with aircraft to those with people. She sometimes talked about the similarities between the two concerning integrity, with an aircraft’s structural integrity signifying “soundness of condition,” and a person’s or organization’s integrity meaning “soundness of character.”
An aircraft is a complex system with a large number of components assembled together to safely and effectively accomplish a purpose that involves flying. Each component has a particular function that contributes to the objectives of the system, and the components are assembled in a particular fashion for the whole system to work properly.
Picture the many structural members in an aircraft wing. Ribs and skin are attached to a main spar to form the wing, and the spar attaches the wing to the fuselage of the aircraft. The wing is designed to carry flight loads in the air, as well as the weight of engines and fuel on the ground, with design limits for maximum stress and careful consideration for how the different components work together to safely transfer forces through the wing to the fuselage. The wing may act differently than designed if components are fastened together improperly, or corrosion develops between components, or a component has a crack. A defect can cause vibration, or increase stress on other parts of the component or other components, or could over time lead to the component or the wing failing completely, possibly even catastrophically.
Critical components are inspected at regular intervals through a standard maintenance program. While some defects are easily discovered visually, other may require disassembly of parts, test equipment, or particular inspection procedures. NDI (non-destructive inspection) uses special techniques that help us look through the metal in different ways, and improve our “probability of detection” of a defect early enough for us to manage risk and affect repairs before structural integrity is compromised.
Interestingly, our opinions of defect does not matter to the wing and its performance. The defects exist before we look for them, and are “discovered,” not “created,” by our inspection. Whether we say a crack is “within limits”, or “small,” or overestimate its size, or even fail to detect it altogether, the crack affects the performance of the wing the same way, and the risks the crack creates when operating the aircraft are all the same. That is, none of the words we use change any of the actual characteristics of the crack or the physics of the stress on the aircraft in flight. However, the opinions we hold and the words we use in discussing the crack with others can make huge differences in how we understand the risks it creates, and ultimately how we manage the defect, what restrictions we impose on use of the aircraft, and when we choose to make which type of repairs. Clear language and open, honest dialogue enables effective risk management, and the right actions to maintain or restore structural integrity.
So, we say an aircraft has “structural integrity” when its components are relatively free from defects that prevent them from performing their functions, and it has the ability to hold together all the other elements of its structure to accomplish its purpose.
Personal or organizational integrity, or “soundness of character,” is similar to the structural integrity of an aircraft. The Air Force Core Values pamphlet (our “Little Blue Book”) states “Integrity is the ability to hold together and properly regulate all the other elements of a personality.” We have various elements that fit together for a purpose (though our “elements” may not be as clearly defined as individual aircraft parts). A deficiency in one element of our life, or different elements not fitting together smoothly or well, can cause stress in all the other elements, and may lead to unexpected failures. Defects in our character may exist whether we acknowledge them or not. Some may have a low “probability of detection” without the effort to carefully examine our character, both individually and as an organization, with the right methods, such as what the “Little Blue Book” calls “corrosion analysis.” Even faults we wish to hide, or ignore, or minimize, or call by a different name can detract from our effectiveness or the effectiveness of our team. However, with clear language and open, honest dialogue, we can bring to light our various defects, recognize risks they represent to our purposes, and take appropriate action to maintain or restore our personal or organizational integrity.