Whispering Thoughts – On This and That (No 4)

MAY 2023


‘The readiness to blame a dead pilot for an accident is nauseating, but it has been the tendency ever since I can remember. … Safety lies in the judgement of chances one takes. The judgement, in turn, must rest upon one’s outlook on life. … Why should we look for his errors when a brave man dies? Unless we can learn from his experience, there is no need to look for weakness.’

— Charles Lindbergh, Journal Entry, 26 August 1938.

Risk is an endemic fact of life and accompanies all human endeavours. Whether at home, at the workplace or carrying out mundane tasks, there is some degree of risk associated with all activities. There is no doubt that risk must be managed, the severity of the interventional management depending on the frequency of failure and the impact of that failure. Managing risks requires systematic evaluation of the type, cause, and probability of failure, which leads to the means of mitigation to bring the level of risk to an ‘acceptable’ level. The field of risk management is vast and varied.

This thought-piece is about risks in military aviation. However, before proceeding further into discussing risks in military aviation, I accept the fundamental fact that certain element of risk is inherent in all walks of life, including during the daily commute to work and back. However, I posit here that military aviators are more likely to live in the ‘danger zone’ as compared to other professions because of two fundamental factors—operational environment and aircraft characteristics. A survey of aviation accidents in the United States, concluded in May 2020, showed that fighter pilots, due to the nature of their missions have a higher probability of encountering incidents, accidents, and fatalities. The survey also showed military transport and training aircraft having a higher probability of accidents and fatalities than civil aviation. Essentially, the survey indicated that military aviation is inherently riskier than most other professions.

A caveat: neither am I trying to glamorise military aviation as a profession in a tangential manner; nor do I compare its inherent risks to those faced by race-car drivers or the matadors in the bull-ring, as some armchair analysts with adroit capabilities to turn good words and phrases have often done; far from it.

I firmly believe that only a practitioner of military aviation can have a real down-to-earth view of the psychological scars that are inflicted by military aviation, collectively and individually, when a fatal accident occurs, and a friend is suddenly gone. It is highly probable that most professional military aviators would have a lost a friend to an accident. I want to put across a thought, germinated a long while ago, regarding the verdict of ‘pilot error’ in respect of fatal accidents, and generically regarding the term itself.

I remember, way back as a flight cadet, listening to a friend, who always had a twinkle in his eye, looking at the starlit sky and saying, “One day I will go there”, “Where?”, “To space.” A few weeks later he was plucked out of this world through the vagaries of bailing out from a single-seat Vampire that had somehow gone out of control. Another friend was a stalwart flyer, always meticulous in his flight preparations, and one who implicitly believed in the flight manuals and emergency procedures. When he suffered a bird hit and flameout on take-off at ejection minima, he elected to force-land the aircraft, as per laid down procedures, when an ejection just may have been possible. The result was catastrophic.

Another ‘good flyer’, brought back a copy-book style gun-camera film of a Pakistani sabre jet during the 1971 War with the pipper of his gunsight on the cockpit for a long duration. He could not shoot the enemy fighter down because his guns had jammed—a common enough failure on the Gnat. Should there not be recognition of such combat achievements, even if the enemy aircraft was not physically shot down? Couple of years later he crashed and lost his life during an innocuous combat training mission: unclear verdict. Again, a younger colleague crashing during a combat training exercise because the aircraft had been flown way beyond the acceptable envelope with insufficient height to recover safely, yet one more with no ejection.

Untimely death takes a toll on the living. Several such accidents, after investigation, return with the vague claim of ‘pilot error’, as much a blame game as putting to rest further speculations. Pilot error is a term that broadly refers to an action/decision made by a pilot that causes or contributes to an accident and includes inaction—the failure of a pilot to make a correct decision and act on it at the appropriate time. The word ‘error’ is generally understood to mean intentional actions that fail to achieve their intended outcomes.

I have a fundamental issue with the term ‘pilot error’, especially when the action/inaction by the pilot has resulted in fatality(ies). I strongly believe that a pilot takes a decision within the very short time available to him in an emerging and unusual situation, and acts on it after considering all known inputs. The decision and actions are filtered through his/her own experience, knowledge, and training. The decision obviously is one that he believes to be totally correct, so much so that he willingly bet his life on the outcome of the decision. That he lost, is a separate analysis. Did he commit an ‘error’? I believe NO. In his calculation he had clearly made the optimum decision under the circumstances—that it did not produce the intended effect is unfortunate.

In the inevitable inquiry that follows every aviation accident, the term pilot error does get used, more so when the actual reasons for the accident remain intangible and cannot be firmly established. In many cases pilot error is indicative of apportioning blame, whereas the basic purpose of the inquiry should be to find the cause of the accident. It is gratifying to note that since the mid-1990s, the use of the term ‘pilot error’ has reduced considerably, and investigators are more cognisant of having to find the cause and not blame an individual.

Another whisper that is always at the back of the mind, and often comes to the fore: a professional military aviator invariably interacts—formally and informally, within the command structure and outside it—on matters of aviation with colleagues, both senior and junior. Such discussions of ‘flying’ are humorously depicted as being pervasive among aviators. The acceptance of the existence of these discussions leads me to believe that when a pilot makes a decision, under limited or extreme stress, it is, in some small way at least, influenced by the interaction that one has had with the individual—imparting knowledge, playing into virtual experiences, or directly impinging on the training. In every fatal accident, if one has interacted with the downed aviator, a small part of us goes down with him/her. I believe that it is incumbent on all of us—professional aviators, even after retirement or proverbially hanging up the gloves—to introspect and analyse our own inputs into that decision of a colleague, which unfortunately did not pan out as it should have. Friends: gone but not forgotten.

Sanu Kainikara

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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