By Rob Finfrock
Former NASA chief astronaut Charlie Precourt gave a brief presentation at CJP 2016 on a topic drawing from his own experiences at the space agency, as well as his past presentations focused on dangers from the normalization of deviance. “No Folklore!” drilled down on the common tendency for flight crews to develop their own (mis)understandings and shortcuts around best practices and procedures.
“This is a corollary to normalization of deviance,” explained the often-requested CJP speaker, who now serves as VP and General Manager, Propulsion Systems for Orbital ATK. “When things aren’t working correctly, we rationalize in our minds why that’s okay.
“Folklore goes further,” he continued. “With every plane I’ve ever flown, a community of people start flying it, and they take what they’ve learned and translate – through their own experiences – what it means. They misinterpret it, it becomes false, yet they believe it to be true… and only through some subsequent sequence of events does it really bite them. Folklore is incorrect information that earns acceptance, and we act on it.
One example Precourt cited is the POH for his own aircraft, a Piper Malibu JetProp. “It’s full of folklore,” he said. “I operate a PT6-35, and the maximum ITT for that engine is 770 degrees continuous; yet, the performance charts list 740. So, which is it?”
Similar uses of “folklore” may be found throughout aviation; indeed, in all aspects of our lives. “The challenge for you is to figure out where that is,” he continued. “You will find it whenever you ask yourself, ‘is that what I really understand about how it’s supposed to work?’ If you’re asking that question, you need to dig until you find the bottom-line answer.”
Precourt also emphasized how awareness of these inaccurate bits of information is imperative towards forming accurate and informed personal operating standards. “When we earned our pilot licenses, we learned there were FAA acceptable standards for certification, such as [performing flight maneuvers to] +/- 10 knots and within 200 feet of the altitude,” he noted. “Is minus 10 knots good on final, though, when you’re at 1.2 V-stall? Probably not!”
Given his ties to NASA, it’s natural that Precourt often cites lessons from the space agency. He noted research conducted by a psychologist at Boston University in the aftermath of the January 1986 loss of the shuttle Challenger due to failed O-ring seals in freezing launch temperatures.
“People became accustomed to deviant behavior to the point they no longer found deviant,” he explained. “[The researcher] found that the engineers never intentionally violated their standards [in deciding to launch Challenger]; they actually analyzed the conditions, and said we think that’s okay, [even though] they’d seen evidence that it might not be. They consciously made those decisions, and they were proved to be wrong.”
Following his presentation, Precourt was awarded with a Lifetime Membership in CJP in recognition of his multiple contributions and familiar presence in the organization.