19 November 2008

Aircraft Occurrences and Integrity

Integrity is a word, which, like time, everyone can define until he is asked to. Integrity is the soundness of moral principle, especially in relation to truth and fair dealing, uprightness, honesty and sincerity. Integrity can rightly be called the mother of all core values. It implies oneness between words and actions. People of integrity conform their words to their actions. They tell the truth. They practice what they preach. They build the culture of trust.

Integrity is thus an ethical value that is the very basis of any organisation. In the military, integrity has a special place; that is because the military is a very special profession – the profession of arms. Military men are entrusted with the security of the nation. The tools of their trade are lethal and they engage in operations that deal with life and death.

How integrity, or lack of it, impacts Aircraft Occurrences in the PAF is what I intend discussing in this short discourse. As the stakes are high for a pilot who is involved in an accident, the possibility of resorting to unfair means is also proportionately high. Experience has shown that when the chips are down, the choice between concealing the truth and being forthright gets mixed-up … and, we are all prone to making a choice that suits us most, one that saves our skin, so to speak. Cheating then manifests itself in many ways. Incorrect narration of events, "hush it up" suggestions, doctoring of aircraft documents and alteration of on-site evidence, are not unheard of practices.

We know that some Inquiry Officers have not been able to withstand the pressure at the host Base and have ended up compromising. The complexion of an investigation against a friend or colleague has, on occasion, been different from that done against a junior officer. Statistics reveal that the number of “undetermined” cases is maximum when a local officer of the Base does the inquiry. The cases of material failure are also disproportionately high when the inquiry is “in-house”. Besides being an unethical practice, it has more serious connotations. Incorrect findings and recommendations are bound to draw out wrong lessons and, recourse to irrelevant remedial measures. I firmly believe that wrong statistics and faulty inquiries have an adverse effect on flight safety. Failure to honestly document the facts unnecessarily places lives and equipment at risk.

A Study of Unethical Behaviour

There are various theories that have tried to explain the causes of unethical behaviour. Before I focus on such behaviour in the context of Aircraft Occurrences, let me say something about the issue in general. It is said that ethical behaviour can be ensured by means of law, or by fear or, personal convictions. Laws or regulations set guidelines of expected behaviour, though a serious limitation of such regulations is that every conceivable circumstance cannot be prescribed. Fear of career derailment, of public exposure, of court martial, all provide enough motivation to restrain us and conform to some set of moral rules. Both fear and law lead people to live within these set boundaries, not out of personal conviction, but out of self-preservation. Fear and law are therefore effective in limited ways only.

Personal convictions form the most effective basis for moral and ethical behaviour. It is the dream of every Commander to have people who instinctively do what is right. Unfortunately, personal convictions change with our society. We in the Pakistan Air Force are not insular. It would be unreasonable to expect the men in the blues to be more convinced about ethics than men in the street. Law is then a last resort when fear and personal convictions do not have the desired effect. Having said that, I must add that law can fail to instil ethical behaviour if its applicability is not uniform. I shall highlight this point by an incident related to flying.

On the Mirage aircraft, I know of five cases where pilots caused the loss of canopy by either forgetting to lock it, or by mixing up its control with drag chute deployment lever during a critical abort. In three cases, the pilots were lightly admonished. In one case, the pilot was taken off from fighter flying. In the last case, the bloke ended up in Risalpur (to teach students how not to forget locking canopies)!

Now, if a pilot knows that with a little twist to the story, he can get away lightly, he would be tempted to take the easier course. Why should he stick his neck out and get chopped. In the incident that I have quoted, applicability of law varied from person to person, despite the offence being the same. We can therefore say that one of the causes of unethical behaviour is the loophole in the law, which makes its universal applicability impossible. As such, it tempts one to cheat.

The Plague of Careerism

The career pattern in the PAF, particularly the flying branch, is such that the tenures on the job are very short. One poor report is enough to ruin a career because there isn’t enough time to recover and make amends for the next report. The matter is compounded by the fact that there is a thin dividing line between career and personal ambition. The latter can cloud ethical judgement and tempt one to place career before honour. It can lead us to cover up errors in an effort to look good at all costs. I believe that one of the most difficult moral choices that flyers face is in establishing priorities between a goal-oriented career and rule-oriented obligations. This is particularly so because we are put to test vigorously every day. Every mission that we go up for is ripe with many possibilities and situations. Each has a bearing on a flyer’s career in one way or another. We are confronted with moral issues, literally at every turn. We are confronted with situations where physical and moral courage is demanded day-in and day-out. It would be obvious that immense pressures are at play in a flyer’s career. Safeguarding the career at any cost is where the problem lies.

Some Suggestions

As may be evident from the preceding paragraphs, the onus of honest behaviour undoubtedly lies on an individual. However, a Commander has some very important responsibilities in this regard. As a first step, he must personally demonstrate scrupulously honest behaviour, so that the convictions of his sub-ordinates with regard to integrity are reinforced. He should, in essence, be able to instil boldness in his men without their worrying about career derailment. A Commander must also stand by these bold and honest men, particularly in the trials and tribulations that are consequent in such situations.

If, however, recourse to law is inevitable, then it is important that law be allowed to take its course, without subjective interference. This would make the playing field even and, anyone willing to pay a price would at least know that it is a fair deal for all. Commanders would therefore have to curb their knee-jerk responses and, wait for Boards of Inquiry to suggest suitable corrective actions for offences. In the same context, it is also important for Commanders to distinguish honest mistakes from those made on purpose or caused by callousness. This, I believe, would encourage ethical behaviour amongst subordinates.

As an anti-dote to unethical conduct, there is no better approach than rewarding officers of proven integrity. We, therefore, need to reward results most scrupulously, with a special reference to men of integrity and character.

Lastly, there is no substitute to good old honest behaviour. All those who read this should resolve that, at least in matters involving Aircraft Occurrences, they shall stand upright and be men of integrity. This may well be their noblest contribution to PAF's Flight Safety programme, as well as their own salvation and redemption.


This article was published in PAF's Flight Safety Newsletter, issue no: 2/1998. The article was adjudged as "Best Article of the Year 1998".

No comments: