The Gouge Cover Photo v2

Sometimes you need to get “off script.”

I’m passing along some “Gouge” so you can benefit from lessons learned and mistakes made during my 36 years of Naval Service. Let me know what you want to hear about.

Sometimes you need to get “off script.”

And 25 of the most harrowing minutes of my life served as a helpful reminder.

The Situation

Wednesday, October 18, 2023. Lewiston, Maine. In town for the inauguration of the new President at Bates College (my alma mater), I was sitting in a Lewiston bar with friends when the bartender told us, “Come inside, get away from the windows. We are in lock down.” To be quite honest, I am usually asked to leave a bar.. This was a first for me. The dream of being asked to stay in a bar was quickly replaced with the real-life nightmare of an active shooter only 7,500 feet from our bar stools. 

I felt for those families who lost their loved ones on a random Wednesday night. I cannot imagine the loss, the grieving. And for this to happen in a small city like Lewiston just didn’t make sense. But when does it?

My civilian friends turned to me and said, “You were in the military, you must be used to this. What should we do?” I thought,”Boys, have you seen my LinkedIn profile? I am a retired fighter pilot who was last shot at by a Taliban gunner at night 21 years ago at 25,000 feet and 400 MPH. Urban active shooter survival was not in my lane! Without clear tactical guidance, we went with our best option and ordered another round. 

When it appeared the gunman was not on our side of town, the bar staff told us we had the green light to make a break for it. As I briskly walked to the car, I thought, “this is by far the scariest walk of my life.”

But this was not the last terrifying event I’d be subject to during my four day trip to New England (God’s Country).

Four days later, I was flying out of LaGuardia in blustery, rainy weather on my last leg home. The flight attendant informed the passengers just after takeoff, “we will be landing soon, and if you see emergency vehicles on the runway, don’t be alarmed. That is just a precaution.”  

Usually, the Laguardia to Norfolk, Virginia leg is about 60 minutes, so either we were going Mach 5.0 (five times the speed of sound) or our airplane was having issues.

An older passenger near me asked the flight attendant if we were going back to Laguardia.  “No. JFK…I think. Um… Let me find out.” He came back with a two-word answer: “Yes, JFK.”

Why were we going to JFK? That sounded like a “LAND AS SOON AS POSSIBLE” emergency, and in Naval Aviation that is not good. You land ASAP for fires, engine failures, or major flight control issues. It sounded and felt like we had two motors, and the aircraft seemed stable, but those were assessments made from the Main Cabin cheap seats. 

What was going on and why aren’t they telling us more?

I was experiencing jitters similar to landing a Tomcat on a pitching flight deck at night, only here I wasn’t at the controls. The fragmented messaging from the flight crew only ramped up my alarm.

With no updates coming from the cockpit, my thoughts started down a path of negativity which concluded in us rapidly losing altitude with flames spewing out of both motors. 

An off-duty, uniformed pilot was asked to go to the cockpit. I thought, “that’s not good,” but he came back to his seat two minutes later. I figured that meant good news. But a few minutes later, he  was asked to come forward a second time, and this time he didn’t return. So, I queried in my head, “you need three pilots to keep this bad boy airborne?” That’s really not good.

With my personal sweat pumps running on high, I remembered thinking, “so this is how it’s going to end?” After  4,000 hours flying fighters, 740 day/night aircraft carrier landings, missions over hostile countries, aircraft fires, single engine landings, I’m going to die in the back of a regional jet flown by a 28 year old Embry Riddle grad? Dammit.! This was not the Blaze of Glory exit I had envisioned as a young junior officer and fighter pilot. But those days of opportunity were passed, anyway. Maybe this was the next best final chapter.

Because we were below 10,000 feet, I couldn’t text my family to tell them about the remarkable irony that was unfolding. Can’t the airlines make an exception for a situation like this? 

The next report from the flight attendant really put us all at ease: “We will be landing in 15 minutes.” That was it. At least he didn’t scream, “We will be crashing in four seconds.” Small victory..

My swirl down the toilet of negativity stopped, temporarily, upon hearing the familiar pop of the landing gear coming down, just as we broke out of the clouds and entered clear air. 

I like seeing the ground. It’s so much easier to avoid crashing into it when you can see it. 

Then the crew tossed one more curveball with this final airborne announcement: “Please review where the emergency exits are as the closest one may be behind you.”  

Typically, you hear that at the start of the flight, not right before landing. So are we riding the bouncy house slide thingy tonight after we skid down the runway? Is it a landing gear issue? I slid right back into the cesspool of uncertainty and negativity.

As we rolled out uneventfully, the stress and angst flooded out of my body, that is until I heard this from the pilot: “Good evening and sorry for the inconvenience. We had a nose wheel steering issue. That is why we came to JFK because the book says to land on the longest local runway. We are going to be towed to the gate.”  

It was just a simple nose wheel steering issue?! I mentally reviewed my list of lifetime regrets over nose wheel steering?

I know exactly what that issue is because the Tomcat and Super Hornet have a similar system, and if you have a problem with it, just disengage it and be extra cautious during the landing rollout. It’s NOT A BIG DEAL!! It’s the equivalent of your response to a traction alert in your car… just ignore it and don’t do anything stupid with the steering wheel.

This late revelation drove me to do something I have NEVER done: commit to providing raw, direct customer feedback to an airline pilot. I  felt that if the pilot had used plain language to describe the situation, he would have put his customers at ease. 

Regional Jet pilots are traditionally new airline hires, and I thought it would be worthwhile to help him out. I wanted to show him that I cared in case he was faced with a similar situation in the future. By keeping us in the dark, the crew forced us to make our own incorrect conclusions and wished we gave our kids a bigger hug. The guy next to me was so freaked he told me “F it. I’m renting a car and driving to Norfolk after we land.” 

The Debrief

I would have the opportunity to give the crew some feedback when I learned the next pilot was the same guy who was pulled up to the front on our last flight. We would also have the same two flight attendants.

After boarding, I asked to speak with the pilot, and he graciously came into the galley area. The senior flight attendant was there too. 

I asked if they are required to only read pre-determined scripts during emergency situations. I shared that by being kept in the dark about a non-significant aircraft issue, their paying customers were freaked out. 

For example, could the pilot have said something like this: “Good evening everyone. We have a minor issue that requires us to turn around and head to JFK. The good news is the flight controls and engines are good to go. Our aircraft is fine, but we do have a nose wheel steering issue that could make a landing rollout a little tricky, so just to be safe we will land at JFK, the longest runway in this area. I have no concerns about this, nor should you. We are sorry for the inconvenience and will get you to your destination as soon as possible. Please help yourself to an extra bag of microscopic, stale Sun Chips.”

The response, especially the flight attendant’s, to my suggestions was underwhelming. He gave me the standard “…emergency THIS requires THAT mandatory script, and emergency THAT  requires THIS mandatory script..blabbity blah blah..status quo…check list…meh….” 

In short, they did everything by the book. The black and white checklist was completed in accordance with corporate standards. And the flight attendant got an A in procedural compliance but he did not get an A in passenger empathy.

I continued, “OK, you scared everyone by doing it by the book, and slightly diverging from your script would have significantly reduced the passenger stress level.”  Just a few more pieces of information passed would’ve been helpful. I offered my hypothetical statement as an option which resulted in the flight attendant repeating his mandatory script mantra. In the end, I believe the pilot did see my perspective, but the flight attendant continued to babble doctrine. Successful debrief? I have no idea.

The Gouge

Use sound judgment.  After a rash of aviation mishaps in the 50 and 60s, the Navy created Naval Aviation Training and Operating Procedures Standardization, or NATOPS, which is a big book of standardized systems knowledge and operating procedures for the safe and effective operation of naval aircraft. This book is the bottom line and if you “violate NATOPS” and crash an aircraft, that would be documented in the EPICALLY NOT GOOD section of your career file. That is, if you were still alive.

But NATOPS cannot predict every situation, so even this military book filled with black and white procedures has a bit of gray built in, stating  “this manual…is not a substitute for sound judgment.”

Sometimes sticking to the “book” or the script is not the only option. And sometimes it is not the best option. Sound judgment is always an option. Don’t hesitate to go off script, or get off procedure if the situation dictates or your people need it.

Make sure your “mouthpiece” gets it. The airline’s mouthpiece that night, the senior flight attendant, in my opinion could have been a better customer service advocate. Oftentimes as leaders we rely on our direct reports or frontline workers to transmit the strategic message of the organization through their action and words. If not aligned to the gameplan, your employee might NOT GET IT and cause customer relations to come unglued quickly. Make sure that your customer facing team really GETS IT so their actions and words match the organization’s mission and vision. 

Mirror Image. Imagine swapping places with your audience, clients, or customers to hear what you are saying. What would you want to hear? Plain english or complicated techno jargon? Is the mandatory script adequate or is the sound of silence working?  

I am confident that if that pilot was in the back with us, he would’ve been just as unhappy as we were with the poor messaging. If he had mirror-imaged that scenario and imagined being in our shoes (or seats), he would have found an easier path to demonstrate empathy for the lack of information and uncertainty of the situation. And now that I think about it, we had a pilot in the back with us and obviously he didn’t see the situation as poorly communicated as the rest of us did. 

The good news from all of this is I turned these perceived brushes with death into an opportunity and booked a trip to check out the skiing in British Columbia the week after I landed. So thank you regional jet nose wheel steering failure. You made me make it happen.

Share this with someone who’d benefit from some Gouge this week! 

Show them you care,

J.J. “Yank” Cummings, Captain, USN (Retired)