Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Editorial: What’s in a Word?

June 2, 2009  By Drew McCarthy

An assignment or a mission – does it really matter what we call it? After all, we do the same things anyway, right? Maybe not. Increasingly, there are voices in the aviation community who believe that making a distinction is important.

An assignment or a mission – does it really matter what we call it?After all, we do the same things anyway, right? Maybe not.Increasingly, there are voices in the aviation community who believethat making a distinction is important.

One notable advocate for making the distinction is Hooper Harris,manager of the Accident Investigation Division at the FAA. Harris wasone of a group of safety experts to appear at this year’s CHC Safetyand Quality Summit in Vancouver.

Harris presented “Leadership and Flight Operations, Leading in a SafetyCulture” on the first day of the summit. Fundamental to the idea thatHarris and others are suggesting is that the demands of leadershipvary, depending on the environment in which we operate.

Take, for example, Sir Winston Churchill: as the British prime ministerduring the Second World War, he was the right leader for the times.Yet, once the war in Europe had ended and the task of reconstructionwas about to begin, his particular style of leadership no longer seemedappropriate. The British populace presumably understood that, andChurchill lost the election in 1945.


Churchill’s leadership style was highly effective in a time of extremeconflict. Harris points not only to Churchill but also to Americanleaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, and other non-politician leaders suchas Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager. Canadians might think of fighterpilot aces Billy Bishop, Raymond Collishaw or Stan Turner.

These kinds of leaders can also be described as “heroes.” The messagefrom people like Harris is that we should not confuse heroes withleaders, they have different qualities.

Heroes are the people who we describe as “going beyond the call ofduty” – those who respond to extraordinary times with extraordinaryactions. They are also the people that we all admire. They are, inalmost every case, risk takers.

That is where the distinction between mission and assignment comes intoplay. When someone is on a mission, the goal is of paramountimportance. But, when it comes to civil aviation is there a place forthese ideas? Harris believes that we should expunge the word “ mission”from the vocabulary of civil aviation. “Mission” thinking has militarysignificance, but has no place in the day-to-day world of civil flyingoperations.

Harris suggests that in the emerging civil environment, leadershipshould be focused on effecting cultural change. In short, leadershipshould be centred on the safety of the group and its activities. Thatis the basis of a “safety culture.”

In such settings, the leader acknowledges risk, recognizes limitations,and relies on clear communication. Does this mean that we no longerhave a place for heroic leaders? Hardly, but in civil aviation, goingto work should not be like going to war.

The word “hero” conjures up a lot of ideas and emotions, but at thebase of it, it comes down to risking one’s own life or well-being for agreater cause. There is also a sense of accomplishing what no one elsecan accomplish, and potentially suffering the worst of consequencesshould you fail.

But when it comes to EMS, S&R or any other flying job, there may bea better word. A couple of years back, I interviewed an S&Rhelicopter pilot who was described in a national newspaper as a “hero.”He never called himself that, but he did accomplish his assignment.According to him, he was just doing his job. What made him a hero inthe eyes of others is that he did the job with the highest degree ofprofessionalism, good judgment and great (in this case) mountain flyingskills – all of which he had developed as the result of hard work andtraining.

His training had prepared him not to take unwarranted risks, to flywithin his self-established limitations and to use his common sense andnatural abilities.

“I was just doing my job,” you’ve probably heard it too. If wecarefully look at what it means, it means months and years of very hardwork and preparation, of training full out, every time. Of carefullychecking and double-checking, of listening and learning, of planning,so that when the time comes, there is no need or place for heroics.

In a modern safety culture, important tasks will no longer be viewed asmissions, but rather, carefully executed assignments. So, while in somecases, the media and the public may want to call someone a hero,perhaps the term that we should all be using is a “true professional.”

Your comments and opinions are always welcome. You can contact me at dmccarthy@annexweb.com.


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