Minor, Major and Critical Errors … and the Highly Qualified Pilot

Maybe one of the best “flying lessons” I ever got took place 60 feet below ground level! Back in the Bad Old Days of the Cold War I served as an Air Force Minuteman launch control officer. How I came to do that for a living, when I took command of the Air Force’s Precision Sitting Team, the “Thunderchairs,” and why I actually launched an ICBM in 1987 are all stories for some other forum. But the pressure-cooker environment of potential total nuclear war, 60 feet under the Missouri plains, strangely did much to prepare me for the single-pilot cockpit of a piston airplane. One thing the “missile business” did for me was to teach the concept of minor, major, and critical errors.

Keeping Score in Nuclear War
Missileers” were (and those remaining likely still are) trained and evaluated relentlessly. At least once a month we spent four hours in “the box” — a functional simulator reproducing the hardware and operation of a missile launch control center. No less than once a year (I personally had eight “annual” checks during a four-year tour of duty) we were evaluated in “the box” and in “the field” — observed while on actual alert, much like a “line check” for an airline pilot.

Every evaluation assumed from the beginning that the “missile combat crew” was perfect — earning 5.0 points on a five-point scale. It only went downhill from there. Certain functions, if performed incorrectly, were considered minor infractions. These were items that were missed or performed incorrectly, but which did not directly impact the primary mission (maintaining missile alert status, or launching missiles when commanded). Commit a minor error, and you’d have one-tenth of a point lobbed off your beginning, perfect score.

A major error might delay getting a missile repaired correctly, allow unauthorized access to a missile site (but no direct access to controls, boosters or warheads), or cause (by action or inaction) one component of the hardware to become inoperative. A major error cost one full point off your final score.

In some cases it was possible to “recover” from a minor or even some major errors, and not be charged the adverse points — if you caught the error in time, and could reverse your actions to undo what you had done.

A critical error in missiledom, however, cost five points — an automatic failure. Examples of automatic “crits” were attempting to launch missiles when not ordered; launching at a valid order but at the wrong time; or launching to the wrong targets — all highly undesirable events (this was, of course, all in “the box“). Another “critical error” was to shut down your launch capsule (thereby degrading the ability of your squadron to launch missiles) when not called for (usually, when dealing with a simulated fire in your 20-by-12 foot underground command center). Great woe be to the “combat crew” that “critted out” and had to go through the entire certification (checkride) procedure to regain their mission-ready status!

Error points were additive — a major error and two minor errors resulted in a 3.8 score, etc. A crew was deemed “qualified” if its final score was 2.5 or higher. Crewmembers were awarded “highly qualified” status for a 4.6 or better score (no more than four minor errors, and none “major“). You could “crit out” on a combination of major and minor errors. And sometimes an action that would ordinarily only be a “minor” error (such as setting a clock or tuning a radio) might become “major” if that action led to missing some other action — or even critical if it adversely affected alert status or a simulated launch later on.

General Aviation
What’s this got to do with flying airplanes? Since we’re not talking nuclear Armageddon here, most pilots who “crit out” (i.e., have an accident) do so by letting “minor” and “major” errors snowball.

Example: I was flying a V-tail Bonanza from Wichita to Tennessee last week, to the Staggerwing Foundation’s annual “Beech Party” fly-in (check out http://www.staggerwing.com). This was my first long trip in the rented Beech, and I’m still getting the hang of its Garmin GX60 IFR GPS. Somewhere over southwestern Missouri I was assigned a heading (specifically, “turn 10 degrees to the right” to avoid a suddenly-hot Military Operating Area [MOA]), and was told to expect “direct” to the Walnut Ridge VOR and then the rest of my route as filed. I made the heading change and began fiddling with the GPS.

My new routing required a change in the GPS flight plan function and, still not comfortable with the interface, I put the Bonanza on autopilot while I paged through the Garmin manual, loading the new waypoints. Satisfied, I activated the flight plan — and turned directly toward Walnut Ridge, about five degrees to my left. Minor error! After no more than five minutes I realized my mistake and returned to my assigned heading. The GPS’ moving map showed I never penetrated the MOA, and ATC never said a word about it. I was now flying on a “4.9” score — one minor error. But if I’d have accidentally penetrated the MOA, or if ATC had needed to divert traffic to avoid a collision hazard, it would have been a “major” offense. And if I’d hit something because of my originally “minor” transgression, well then…

Common Error Chains: Often a pilot comes coasting into the airport pattern with less-than-normal power. The airplane is descending faster than usual, giving the illusion that retractable landing gear is down. A minor error (diving into the pattern) might lead to a major transgression (forgetting the landing gear), and ultimately a “critical” offense (a gear up landing) if airspeed, pitch and power cues don’t warn the pilot of impending disaster.

Errors of the “Highly Qualified” Pilot. The trick is to minimize the “minor” errors, avoid the “major” offenses, and thereby not “crit out,” or have an accident. Let’s face it — none among us is perfect, at least not all the time! It’s almost always possible to “recover” from a “minor” error in the plane, and bump your score back into the “highly qualified” range.

Strategy: Even if you “pull a major,” you can still fly the rest of the trip in perfect safety if you monitor your position and watch your performance. Cross-check for any indications other than what you’d expect. Stay focussed. As hard as it seems, it is possible to put the emotion of committing even a major error or two behind you, and fly the rest of the trip to “HQ” standards.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Catch the small stuff before it becomes “major“…or even “critical.” Track your position and your airplane’s performance, and constantly ask yourself if things are going as planned. Be your own critic and set your own limits. Watch for mistakes in your own flight performance, the performance of the aircraft … even the performance of the weather forecasters. Work toward holding your near-perfect score as a “highly qualified” pilot and respect the ramifications of what it would mean to “crit out” in the air.