Lessons Learned: Even the Best Laid Plan Can Completely Fall Apart

Proper planning is essential to the success of any type of flying.  Even if you are just going out for some VFR fun you need to make sure you are prepared for the weather as well as any NOTAMS pertaining to where and what you plan to do.  But as anyone who has flown very much knows, even the best laid plan can quickly fall apart.  That is just the nature of aviation.

A few weeks ago I got to witness just such an occurrence happen to someone else only a day before it happened to me.

A friend of mine had planned for a pretty complex mission involving three aircraft and two parachutists getting off at least six jumps.  She had thought through the situation well and had developed a pretty solid plan to accomplish all of the necessary training in the safest way possible.

As is wont to happen when you fly planes that are more than 40 years old, maintenance issues complicated the execution of the plan.  Ultimately, the plan really fell apart when it was discovered that one simple phone call had not been made and thus precluded any of the jumps from taking place.  That meant that my plan for the next day just got more complicated.

I now had to develop a plan to get those jumps off while still accomplishing all of the other objectives I already had for my flight.  I developed just such a plan and everything was in order to get it done.  The planes were even working well and it looked like it would all go off without a hitch.  Silly me to think that would actually happen.

Occasionally we plan for the day flights to pass off their planes to the night flights without shutting down the engines.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the short version is that it saves a lot of work for our maintainers while still allowing us to get two different groups of flights.

As we stood there waiting for the morning flights to land, two aircraft landed and taxied off while the third plane went around for one more approach.  I hoped that it was not our plane, but it was, so we were left waiting for another ten minutes while the other two crews took over their aircraft and got ready to fly.  The problem with this situation was that my plane was supposed to do the first set of jumps, with the other jumps to follow after.  With my plane taking off a good 15-20 minutes after the time we were supposed to take off, the whole plan had just been tipped upside down.

Fortunately, I work with a bunch of great professionals and we came together to modify the plan in a way that would still get the mission accomplished.  As the mission commander I laid out the new plan with the new times we would utilize and the rest of the formation confirmed the design of the new plan.  There were still a handful of delays and a couple of miscommunications with the air traffic controllers that led to some wasted time, but in the end all of the jumps were accomplished and as much training as possible was completed.

This just reaffirmed the importance of contingency plans when putting together a flight.  Even if you are flying alone it is important to have a plan for when unexpected weather rolls in, or when the engine starts to run a little rough and you need to land quickly.  If these situations have been considered long before takeoff, then they will be far less stressful when they come along.  It will simply be a matter of implementing those solutions that have already been discussed.

The other important reminder from this situation is the value of flying with professionals.  People who take their job seriously will put in the effort needed to be personally prepared to fly.  They will not wait until the day of a flight to look through the pubs, but will study them well beforehand.  They will ask questions of those with more experience and try to learn from their previous mistakes.

One of the greatest benefits of working with experienced professionals is the level of situational awareness that they possess.  As you become more experienced as an aviator you are able to take on more of the situation and better understand the picture around you.  In this case, the crews of the other aircraft were able to look at our delay and understand how that would affect the mission as a whole.  They were able to provide valuable insights to me as the mission commander that made it possible to come up with a solid plan that would work for everyone involved.  They were not simply sharing their opinions for the sake of doing so, but were contributing to a solution.

As a navigator I have a unique role on the flight deck as I have no access to the aircraft controls but I can still do a lot to contribute to the successful flight of our aircraft.  One of the most important things for a Nav to learn is what to say and when to say it.  I could spend an entire flight talking about things and provide no real value to the flight.  On the other hand I could not say much and save the crew in an emergency.  The real value is in what is being said and its value to the mission.

Part of that equation is also in the timing of what we say.  Telling the pilot about your timing situation as he is flaring to land is not a good idea.  The information is important, but not at that time.  It is exactly the same when you are working with a formation.  We often talk about “the good idea fairy” appearing when a plan is presented.  This is when everyone and their dog decides they have a better way of executing your plan and they decide to share it right before execution.  There is nothing wrong with sharing good ideas, but right before take-off is not the time for that, unless of course it will keep the formation more safe.

Planning for a flight is incredibly important, and an essential part of that plan needs to be some sort of contingencies for when the plan starts to break down.  Ideally, you will never have to utilize them, but I can almost guarantee that the flight you decide to plan with a little less detail will be the flight that you needed it most.