Debriefing A Year – Conversations & Closure

As pilots, every flight undertaken both requires and deserves a “debrief”. 
Every flight will have required its prep – gathering and dissemination of information; planning of routes, fuel, contingencies; briefing of crew, weather and air traffic control.  Once it’s been completed, a debrief is the most valuable tool we have to assess the flight for everything it entailed, take mental note of where we can improve or pre-empt next time, and to file information that helps us build an increasingly comprehensive “big picture” with which to assess every future flight.
These debriefs may change shape over the years from the intensity of our first training flights where there was so much to discuss and improve on.  They may even morph into more casual banter over a flight that’s gone extremely smoothly – but the essence of incremental and aggregate gains is never lost.  These are the discussions that keep us “on the up”.  These are the discussions that keep us alive.
In a similar fashion, I believe that each year that draws to an end requires and deserves a debrief.  Regardless of how it’s gone, there is great value in discerning and filing the lessons learned so that we can step up a level next year and not have to repeat the same lessons again.  Not only does a debrief allow us to do this discerning and filing, but it allows us to create conversations with our team that let off steam and allow everyone to have a laugh, no matter how wry, at the lessons learned.
Many, many years ago, a very good friend of mine said to me “Before you reach your first 100 hours, you’ll do something that will either kill you, or it will scare you so bad you’ll NEVER do it again.”  Perspective, caution and humour for an up and coming young pilot with all the false confidence of someone who’s just gained her Private Pilot’s Licence and who could now take an aircraft flying of her own accord – any time she liked!  I was 18.
Of course, one of the first things I did was take various family members for a spin.  One of these flights involved taking Kevin Chiwara, who’d worked for my Mum since I was 4, for his first flight.  I was so proud to share that with him.  We took off from Charles Prince Airport in Mt Hampden and flew to the nearby “training area”.  Nothing fancy – just a short hop for the experience on a beautifully warm and slightly bumpy Zimbabwean afternoon.  Not too far into the flight, one of those bumps produced a small spatter of something across the left side of my windshield.  I regarded said spatter with interest, wondering what on earth it could be…
And then I knew.  OIL…!  I went cold.
Pre-flighting an aircraft is the very first thing you learn to do – checking every nook and cranny of that plane to make sure it is as it should be before taking it flying.  Part of that pre-flight was to check the oil level in the engine using the dipstick just inside the oil flap on the side cowling of the aircraft nose.  I’d done that and decided we could use a top up – pouring another quart of oil into the system.  I must not have closed the oil filler cap correctly, and with each bump, oil was leaving my engine!!
I glanced over at the oil pressure and temperature gauges on the instrument panel.  They were both still in the green, but who knew for how long.  I had no way of knowing how much oil was left in the engine, and consequences of an engine running without enough oil weren’t good.  I radioed the tower for immediate return and landing, keeping my voice as steady as I could.  Thankfully, Kevin had no expectations of how long the flight would be and the fact that we were airborne was probably enough for him.
Having executed the smoothest flight I could manage back to the airport and landed safely, I taxied to the hangar of the training school, enormously glad that there was a parking directly in front of the hangar which would shield me from the direct gaze of anyone on the veranda. On exiting, the size of my misdemeanour was evidenced by the sticky dark slick down the entire left side of my aircraft.  I guided Kevin to the veranda and got him set up with tea whilst I attended to what must be done.
I asked Max, who worked in the hangar, for a bucket and cloth.  There was no way I could ask someone else to clean up what I’d caused.  I ascertained that the oil cap was still present and accounted for with new appreciation for the fact that it was attached with a small chain – the type you’d find on a bath plug.  Clearly, I wasn’t the first…and the powers that replace oil caps had catered for my failures.  I replaced the oil in the engine with all the guilt of someone who’s massively disrespected their vehicle of choice.  I still feel guilt writing this.
Confessing to my Chief Instructor was another level of shame.  I was horrified by the possibilities and my stupidity.  In retrospect, perhaps they’d seen it before, and perhaps they secretly knew this was the coming of age of a new “baby” pilot.  No one was unaware of what we’d escaped.  My friend was right – it hadn’t killed us, but I’d never do it again.  Not only my oil cap, but every inch of my pre-flight took on new level of commitment from there on and I understood why there were many more hours of experience to gain before anyone would allow me to do this as a job!  Not only had I been cut down to size, but
I’d added a brick to the knowledge and understanding I’d build a career on.
This episode was something those more experienced than me were able to “debrief” with a single raised eyebrow look.  There wasn’t much to say really, just learning to be done.  I’m not sure Kevin was ever the wiser, and he’s just completed 37 years’ service in the employ of my Mum.
We’re older now.  Wiser in many ways.  And yet each year brings us new experiences and tests that ask us to prove ourselves further.  We pass some of those tests with flying colours, building on the experiences of years gone by.  Occasionally, something hits us right between the eyes and the level of change or expertise needed seems beyond us.  And yet here we stand.  Still here as 2019 draws to a close.
Not only you, but every member of your team (both at work and at home) will have encountered some tests this year.  Some will have been narrow escapes.  Some character building.  Most you’ll be able to laugh about or at least share a wry smile.  Without creating conversations where we can discuss things, our experiences remained locked inside us, sometimes doing more damage than good – when they could be beneficial to others and where sharing allows us to release the pressure build up.
Simple questions such as “What went right for us, and what did we do well?”, and “What didn’t work, or what could we have done better?” are enough to get the conversation flowing.
What are we made for if not incremental improvement?  To use our strengths and skill to better navigate what comes, opportunity upon opportunity, is the quest of excellence.  Debriefing allows us to strain out the knowledge gained and file it as experience.  We can move forward without wallowing in the guilt of our imperfection, focused instead on continuing to improve our performance.  Life, like aviation, is a constantly evolving and never-ending test of our knowledge and expertise.  Debriefing shows a level of commitment to learning, and self-acknowledgement of our errors.  It represents a pact not to brush away failures and trials, but to share them so that everyone can be stronger and better prepared.
What went right for you this year?  What did you do well?  What didn’t work, and what could you do better next year?  What experiences have added bricks to the foundation of your knowledge – bricks that you’ll build on with each coming experience as you work your way towards mastery?  Bricks to build a new decade and a new chapter on.

by Christen Killick

December 16th, 2019

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