February 10, 2020
These cold gray days summon memories. Some memories teach lasting lessons.
Not so long ago, my former boss, a senior Navy aviator who following retirement from active duty headed a small division I worked in at the Office of Naval Research, used the sentence above, time-honored in Navy aviation, to describe his expectations for our team’s response to looming disaster. Looking back at some of the fixes we found ourselves in at ONR between 2005 and 2014, disaster seemed to loom every week.
“Fly the aircraft” describes the responsibility of a pilot who experiences an in-flight system failure that threatens his or her aircraft’s ability to stay airborne. It means simply: do your job, maintain control, execute the mission. Pilots understand it. For non-pilots, a hint of its meaning shows up in a slightly different context in the opening scene of the 2016 movie “Sully,” about the emergency landing of a U.S. Airways flight on the Hudson River in January 2009. Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, recognizing his aircraft has lost both engines, assumes full control with the terse words: “My aircraft.” His co-pilot replies: “Your aircraft.”
So: this past week: Political cowardice, obscene bluster. Coronavirus. Blizzards, tornadoes, floods across the country; multi-trillion-dollar federal debt. Reminds me of my ONR stint: an out-of-control program director, eventually relieved of duty; backstabbing office politicians; egregious violations of federal human research protections law; indifference, even hostility, of Navy commanders and department heads to policies intended to protect research subjects.
When I think back about it—not often—I remember the lowlights. Sometimes the enemy was shuffling incompetence by mid-grade officers and civilians; often it was gibberish emails and interminable, sleep-inducing staff meetings. “A task transferred (i.e., pitched to someone else) is a task completed” was the operative mindset at HQ. Some of it was sitcom material: Our field “specialists” routinely produced incomprehensible trip reports. A staff attorney recruited the head of the legal department to raid our budget to increase her salary. Then the floodtide of petty stuff: calling Penn State University “U-Penn” and spelling Colombia, the country, the way the name of the Ivy League school in New York is spelled, etc., over and over.
I recall the positives. My boss, brilliant and creative, a Yale Ph.D. and former astronaut, left our team priceless moments, many of which prompted bursts of laughter in the face of bureaucratic insanity. Those walking by our closed-door meetings wondered: Are they seriously disturbed? Good training, he used to say.
“Fly the aircraft”: accomplish the day’s tasks in the face of the BS. Our antidote was carefully thought-out, professionally executed staff work. Often it took hours of rewrites and do-overs. We didn’t lose our cool, send backbiting emails, or lobby outsiders. The default tactic for our team was to take responsibility for the “s—shows” as well as for the winners.
Recognize truth, confront it. Complete the task. When storms threaten, face them sooner, not later. The truth is ground reality, in the dictum, Factum non verbum. What is truth? For a majority of U.S. Senators today, truth is fear of a Trump tweet. Out in the real economy, millions still seek good work, despite the politically jacked-up statistics. The truth is that all work that satisfies an employer who pays for the labor is good work, no work is humble, all work can be a beginning. “Fly the aircraft” applies for those who sit in comfortable corporate offices and those who agonize, alone late at night in front of a laptop, looking for exactly the right word to express truth in honest English, in their job applications or first novels.
I look back now at those nine years as a uniquely bizarre experience, a descent into the Challenger Deep of government management animated by ponderous clichés and governed by policies and procedures routinely ignored. Not to throw stones only one way: I saw the same things on the industry side, where contractors connived to milk the government in ingenious ways, often with amazing success.
This is just my cynicism. Yet that time also offered precious lessons, or one, anyway, in the legacy of a leader who supported good people and knew how to confront crisis. After he retired because of a medical emergency, I pondered the meaning of the aircraft metaphor. I summoned memories of my college-years immersion in Hemingway’s fiction, looking for echoes of common ground. Hemingway pared away adjectives and used three space-bar spaces between words to isolate the meaning of each. He produced spare, austere fiction that won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Many think he pointed to hard truths. Others say he created only delusions.
Eventually Hemingway failed, with a shotgun. But when we think about things that matter, we wonder why we think they matter. We seek truth and joy, but we may instead find doubt, ambiguity, darkness. We hope we respond with integrity. First, faith. Second, good training. Then: “fly the aircraft.”