The Tornado fighter-bomber flew at a speed 450 Knots and at a height of just over 100 feet over the barren landscape of north Labrador in Canada. I flew the aircraft from the front cockpit, while behind me my weapons systems officer operated the radar, the on-board computers and sensors. We were in a great mood. For the first time we had been scheduled for a mission at an extreme low-altitude without being accompanied and supervised by our flying instructors or experienced aircrew. We had both put four years of hard training behind us to reach this point in our flying careers. So now, despite being very focused and concentrated, as adrenaline pumped through our veins and our pulses were racing, we enjoyed this special moment, the exhilarating feeling of freedom as we raced over the terrain below.
As a highlight of the mission, we planned to fly over Harp Lake, a lake about 30km long and 1.5km wide which is bordered on both sides by 1500-foot steep rock walls. I rolled the aircraft and descended into the valley from the northeast. What a breathtaking feeling it was to race just above the surface of the water while mighty rock faces rose to the left and right of us. However, intoxicated by this experience, we did not notice the broken layer of clouds change into an overcast layer effectively putting a lid over the valley at the southern end of the lake. It slowly dawned on us that we had to do something.
At this point the valley was too narrow for a turnaround. Our lack of situational awareness had put us into a situation where a controlled climb while maintaining the visual flight rules was no longer possible. As we were racing towards the vertical rock face at the southern end of the lake with fewer and fewer options left, I decided to perform a low level abort procedure. In other words, I had to execute an emergency climb, igniting both afterburners and flying the aircraft out of the valley with maximum thrust and the greatest possible climb angle. Within seconds we were surrounded by thick clouds and lost all reference to the ground. I set the flight transponder to ""Emergency"" in accordance with the applicable regulations, we climbed to the minimum safe altitude set for the area we were flying in and contacted air traffic control in order to continue in accordance with instrument flight rules. A calming Canadian voice gave the clearance back to the airbase in Goose Bay, where we landed half an hour later without further incident. Lucky for us, we survived this incident to tell the tale.
So, how did we get into such a dangerous situation despite having been through many years of tough and demanding training and that we should have known better?
1. Mental preparation: We did not prepare sufficiently for possible deviations from the plan (“contingencies”) and options.
2. Situational awareness: The joy of the shared experience distracted us, disrupted our focus on the safe conduct of the mission and thus prevented early recognition of the danger and appropriate countermeasures.
3. Discipline: Our first mission without supervision of instructors led us to neglect discipline and concentration in favor of freedom and exhilaration.
4. Experience and Training: At that time we still lacked the experience and training that is necessary to identify risks in extreme situations early on and to counteract them in real time.
As is customary in aviation, upon our safe return to base we informed our superiors about the incident, analyzed it together with experienced flight instructors and shared our findings with the other aircrew so that everyone could learn from our experience. In any case, I never made this mistake again during the next 16 years of military flying (although I did make other mistakes, though).
In 2009 I retired from the German Air Force after 21 years and have since worked for various organizations and enterprises in industry. Currently, I am the Director for Business Development for CAE GmbH in Germany. But regardless of the type of organization I have worked in, I have found that many of the topics and principles that hold true in aviation can also be applied to an operational context in business.
Here is a selection of topics that can serve as enablers to successful business:
1. Effective goal setting and planning
2. Good mental preparation and discipline
3. Structured meetings and effective communication
4. Creating common situational awareness at all levels of the organizations and in teams
5. Back up and contingency planning
6. Implementing an error culture that sees mistakes as opportunities for the organization and individuals to learn, improve and grow
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