Coachlines - May 2020

30.05.20 Hon Asst John Blauth

Normal, new normal, deviations and beyond

Right up until it was stopped in its tracks by the present plague, we mostly took flying for granted. And when ‘new normal’ emerges we shall no doubt once again defy gravity and go aloft in heavier than air machines.

It is most unlikely that the experience will be noticeably different. From airport parking to emerging into what passes for fresh air at the other end, the glamour of air travel will still be between moderately and mostly unpleasant. The promises made in ads for BOAC and Pan Am in the 1960s will continue to taunt us. No number of air miles or airport shops compensate for the stale air, the occasionally aromatic and inevitably irritating folk with whom you share the cramped tube, the harassed staff, frightful food and the mind-sapping boredom, which leads you to eat and declare it wonderful.

In the 1950s and 60s there was a small group of fliers to whom none of the above applied. Not first-classers on commercial flights: rocket pilots whose craft was the X-15. No in-flight catering for them, simply stratospheric risk and beyond. Yet without the X-15, and without those pilots most of whose names have been forgotten, the US space programme would have failed to take off (pun absolutely intended).

Journalist Michelle Evans’ book The X-15 Rocket Plane – Flying the first wings into space is a riveting read for any modern historian, student of the Cold War or aviation anorak, a category into which a healthy proportion of Coachmakers comfortably fits. It is equally captivating for less committed readers who remember 1969 and Apollo 11 with awe. Neil Armstrong, NASA test pilot, was an X-15 pilot first. As well as a fascinating story about test pilots and an extraordinary aircraft, which bust records as easily as you and I might break household crockery – it reached Mach 6.7 on one flight and an altitude of 314,750 feet on another – the book is about the women and men, the engineers, technicians, and managers responsible for the direction and success of the programme.

The book illuminates several practical lessons of inestimable value. There are two which stick out for me: first, when deviations from the normal become the new normal, the consequent risk changes from upward slope to vertical and leaves the graph. Second, when people see something going amiss, yet fail to speak up, the likelihood of danger swiftly moves from possibility to certainty and often ends in a cemetery.

The same lessons are the theme of another relevant book. Matthew Syed, in Black Box Thinking, powerfully makes the point that in certain circumstances, for example operating theatres and cockpits, unresolved problems can become deadly dangerous.

Twelve men flew the X-15, arguably the most dangerous series of missions in the history of aviation, as opposed to space exploration. Only one of them, Major Mike Adams, lost his life flying the X-15. Only one. But it should not have happened and, as the majority of accidents do, it started with one small human factor.

In 1967 after the accident, X-15 programme engineer Harry Shapiro and pilot Robert White reached conclusions about Adams’ fatal crash that also shed light on the roots of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters many years afterwards. The key conclusion was that deviations, even apparently insignificant ones, from what is normal quickly become accepted as being the ‘new normal’.

This lesson, chillingly, underlines the sound engineering principle that variance from expected boundaries should never be regarded as routine and is never ‘normal’. People died in these three cases because individual and group assumptions had replaced questioning. Not wanting to be the one to stand up and ask whether something is wrong, or act if you believe that is, can be a deadly mistake.

Both books, and the link above, made me ask myself: would I question someone in authority if I thought they were mistaken? What would I risk to speak up?