Ramp Strikes, Mom's Name, and Survival

From All Hazards Contemplations...

Although I love to read, I haven't had much reading time lately. Work and completing the edits of my chapter in Jones & Bartlett's new Fundamentals of Technical Rescue has taken up most of my spare time. I have been able to complete a book I have wanted to read for a long time recently, Deep Survival by Laurance Gonzales.

Gonzales' work is an excellent study in what it takes to survive extreme situations. He discusses several high-profile and not-so-high-profile incidents in which some people lived, some died, and the reasons for each. His research also includes an astonishing view into brain chemistry, how our brains are wired, and why people make some of the decisions we do under stress.

Some of his research led him to the pilot's ready room on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier where pilots were preparing for night landings. In case you're not familiar, night carrier landings are so dangerous and stressful that physiological studies show that the pilots are actually more stressed during the carrier landings than in combat. In the pre-flight briefing, the squadron commander tells the pilots "If you're a quarter of a mile out and I ask you your mother's name, YOU DON'T KNOW!" He went on to say that the pilots are so focused that they effectively lose 1/2 of their IQ...the half that's not necessary to land the plane.

The commander later told Gonazlez that one of the primary loss-of-focus accidents in carrier landings is the "Ramp Strike". These are devastating accidents where the pilot focuses so strongly on getting to a safe place - the flight deck - that he loses focus on the steps it takes to get to safety - actually flying the plane in the correct pattern. Ramp strikes generally kill the pilot and other carrier crew members, destroy planes worth several million dollars per copy, and cause major damage to one of our most expensive strategic weapons systems. That's a bad outcome from an event that - although dangerous - our Navy pilots perform safely dozens of times per day.

Gonzales also relates the Mt. Hood climbing accident where one team fell into another and both teams ended up with dead team members and others seriously injured. The second team was involved because they looked up at the team climbing a ridge above them and didn't realize that they were directly in that team's fall line. Gonzales illustrated this by making the same climb himself. When the guide asked him "Which way is down", Gonzales pointed down the ridge to the starting point at the lodge, even though a dropped ice axe - or falling climber - would fall off the side of the ridge, not down the edge of the ridge toward the lodge. He then realized that he'd made a basic orientation mistake - pointing toward percieved safety instead of really assessing his surroundings.

The message - staying oriented is important. When starting search rope training, I've had firefighters tell me "That's so old school. Groping around in smoke is silly - just use a Thermal Imager."

My response is that "The Thermal Imager gets you in to the seat of the fire or to the victim, but it doesn't get you out." The search rope system helps prevent disorientation and it helps you re-orient if you become disoriented. If you don't have a hoseline, anchor a search rope and stay hooked up to it. If you get disoriented, you have two choices - either spend air, effort, and time in a self-rescue or staying put, calling a Mayday, and hoping that RIT gets you before the fire and smoke do. Staying oriented and maintaining a positive connection to the exterior gives you a much better chance of self-rescuing.

A large component of personal survival is mental - both pre-event and during it. The pre-event decision is about doing a thorough, focused size-up and risk-benefit analysis, and taking only calculated risks. The during-event mental focus is to trust the survival system you put in place during the event. Being able to synthesize survival techniques from other professions can help us analyze our mistakes and avoid making them again. As my friend Mick Mayers says, "There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the military". I'd add that there are also lessons to be learned from mountain and river guides, airline pilots, wilderness survival experts, and others who are in the daily business -as we are - of surviving in dangerous places.

The lesson here is to assess your surroundings, have pre-event survival systems in place, control your emotions, and avoid erroneous perceptions of exactly how to get to a safe place.

And...if you call a Mayday, and I ask you your mother's name, YOU DON'T KNOW!

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