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Naval Aviation - Books and blog by Peter M. Hunt

Courageous kindness

While The Lost Intruder was certainly about deep diving, Naval Aviation, and underwater exploration, these perspectives merely provided the framework for the book’s genuine aspiration: describing the re-discovery of my soul. Despite countless hours of reflection, however, the mechanisms at play behind the scenes during the 18-month search remain, for the most part, a comforting mystery to me. 

Intuitively, I knew to avoid gleaning from the experience inevitably incomplete, although important, interpretations of meaning—The Lost Intruder was only one segment of a very long journey. Instead, I relied on the calming conclusion that, without knowing exactly why, I could trust in the process of life.

Despite a frequently circuitous path forward since then, I still honestly believe that regardless of individual struggles, life really will turn out okay. Just writing that makes me smile. What, do you want to live forever?

While it’s taken years and may take many more to fully comprehend the ultimate value of The Lost Intruder’s chapter of my life, thorny insinuations of higher purpose have mostly been put to rest by a realization of practical magnitude. There is no higher meaning than to love without judgment or reservation in recognition of collective beauty, life’s sincerest identity. It’s that simple.

A gentle humility lies within us all, ready to be put into everyday service by an individual’s courageous kindness. Maybe deep down, that will make you smile; I hope so.

Farewell, old friend…

Aging is a constant cycle of releasing: letting go of those things closest to you in the recognition that, ultimately, “things” are unimportant. Thus far, letting go of “things” as my Parkinson’s disease progresses has been easy for me. Flashy cars and ostentatious homes never held value in my heart, and we successfully avoided their trap into a superficial vision of the world.

There may be an exception, however: our boat, “Sea Hunt.” I staged almost all my boating adventures from the Deception Pass Marina, home to a Hunt boat continuously for the past thirty years. I met some of my best friends on the marina’s creaky docks.

Soon after picking up Sea Hunt in 2006, my wife, two children—ages eight and twelve at the time—and I struck out on the 180-mile journey to Desolation Sound. Over the years, we took multiple family trips to Hotham Sound, Princess Louisa Inlet, Victoria, and the Gulf Islands, as well as countless local San Juan Island visits.

We made hundreds of dives in the off-season from Sea Hunt, many in Deception Pass. The family would return to the boat when summer arrived for crabbing and socializing with boating friends.

Sea Hunt found the Lost Intruder, an A-6 Attack jet that I had personally flown. It crashed in Rosario Strait in 1989, but the Navy—despite the use of four ships and state-of-the-art search equipment—could never locate the wreckage.

For over a decade, the beat-up 32-foot “motor yacht” (the official Model name) was probably the most used boat in Coronet Bay. Midnight runs with half the marina aboard were common, battling the swift currents in tiny Canoe Pass at night, occasionally going through backwards. We put the 1987 Bayliner through the wringer, adding 2,200 hours to each diesel engine.

With do-it-yourself maintenance becoming problematic and the boat increasingly less comfortable for me, the time has come. Sea Hunt is the sole “thing” that I will truly miss from my life.

This morning, to prepare the boat for sale, I took down my AARP card collection from where the fifty or so cards had accumulated above the helm. Why AARP cards? If you refuse to join, the AARP keeps on sending them. It was my version of giving a not-so-subtle middle finger to aging.

Maybe the AARP got the last laugh, after all, I consider, smiling broadly, shake my head, and marvel, “Ain’t life grand?”

Part Three: Parkinson’s helped resuscitate my soul.

“The Lost Intruder, the Search for a Missing Navy Jet” is largely about shedding old identities, which allowed me to create fresh characteristics and behaviors based on who I wanted to be. Wiping my identity slate clean was daunting. But merely existing without the foundation of an internalized self-portrait, as I did for some time after Parkinson’s Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, was profoundly disturbing, especially while trying to avoid being defined by the outside world.

Working through the emptiness, I experienced honest, unfiltered emotions for the first time in decades. Not since childhood had I felt such stinging gut reactions, real-time feedback that inspired serious reflection on what was important in life.

The solitary time spent on the water combing the ocean bottom encouraged introspection, and with my mind temporarily free of a lifetime of knowledge, logic, and reason, a pair of feelings filled the void: kindness and love. It became evident to me that nothing else mattered, that all man’s rantings and ravings served as distractions from our true nature. I didn’t choose a new identity; it chose me.

Science and technology, man’s tools of understanding, can answer complicated, practical questions, but only human insight—a soulful exploration of the essence of things—can shed light on why we exist and suggest how we might act to realize happiness. To disregard one as trivial is to risk losing the whole point of life.

I have no answers. I do, however, acknowledge my feelings as the most essential part of me, and kindness and love make me feel good. And after all, isn’t that what we are ultimately striving for as we embark on mindless quests for power, money, and fame? To simply feel good about ourselves?

#peterhuntbooks #thelostintruder #livingwithparkinson’s #dbssurgery

Smashwords interview of Peter Hunt

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
The prospect of touching a single individual and making a positive difference in his or her understanding of life, especially if they have Parkinson’s disease. I strive to be the best listener possible. This often means traveling with another down their personal path of self-discovery, an always fascinating and sometimes enlightening invitation to view another’s soul. If this sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, please remember that I used to be a Navy carrier combat aviator and commercial airline pilot, as well as a former deep-water shipwreck diver; in other words, one accustomed to life’s harsh perceived realities. But there is so much more out there. By inviting a reader into my story, I might be able to offer a glimpse of possibility and hope for those with incurable disease.

What do you read for pleasure?
Until relatively recently, I read nothing but books on history, politics, and biography/autobiography. Now I look for books that tease the imagination and stir the soul, stories and nonfiction which inspire both deep thought and an unconscious connection of commonality, kindred tales of our society’s generational myths. For me, it is all about trying to understand the experiences of others, be they real or fiction, not to find fixes or cures. There is no cure for life. All we can hope to do, I believe, is to ease another’s path towards a settled, inner peace.

Describe your desk
Moderate clutter with a large, printed sign at the top of the window that says, “Boldly going nowhere.”

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
Six years of my childhood in the 1970s was spent in Athens, Greece. These were the magical years of spiritual alchemy before I was poisoned by the societal sanctions of adulthood. Anything was possible, and time was immaterial. There was no TV, just ancient ruins along every roadside, spilling over with stories to tell, sparking imaginative travel far beyond the realm of our family VW bus. I miss those days, back before life was overthought. In my opinion, modern society needs to feel a whole lot more, and think a whole lot less.

When did you first start writing?
When I was 38, five years before my Young Onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. In retrospect, I probably had the disease back then, though. Parkinson’s has changed my life for the better in so many ways. Without having contracted the disease (what an odd word, “contracted,” used in this manner), I would likely have gone through a life unexamined, unfulfilled, and never at peace or happy. I see writing, Parkinson’s, and who I am today on the deepest level as so intricately connected as to be unfathomable.

What’s the story behind your latest book?
“The Lost Intruder, The Search for a Missing Navy Jet,” is on the surface about my discovery of a Navy A-6 Intruder that crashed off the shores of Whidbey Island in 1989. The jet was from my squadron; I had flown that specific jet both from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and ashore from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. But that merely provides structure for the book. The underlying story relates my battle with Parkinson’s disease during the project, and how it transformed me into a more caring and happy person. It is a soulful revel in life’s mysteries, as well as an informative look at Naval Aviation, technical wreck diving, underwater sleuthing, and Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, among other things. Oh yeah, and a page-turning adventure; don’t want to forget about that!

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Hearing from readers who connect with my experiences and have somehow benefited from them. Four years of research, searching, and writing balances nicely with deeply relating to another human being.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
Yoga, exercising, occasionally Scuba diving, some volunteering, and enjoying nature. Thinking a lot followed by doing my best not to think at all.
Published 2018-03-03.

Goodbye, USS Ranger

Having served for ten years active duty, including combat, in the United States Navy did not make me eligible for a pension or stipend of any sort. It did not allow for tax free shopping privileges at the on-base Commissary for groceries or the Navy Exchange for sundry goods. It did not provide for medical or dental benefits. It did not even permit access to the Naval Air Station to show my son the few buildings still standing where I used to work.

All that remained to show for a decade of service to my country were boxed up medals, plaques, awards, memories, and the only perk that honestly lasts forever-friendships tempered by the steely combat of a long-misplaced youth.

Eight months ago, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn back the clock a quarter century, if only temporarily. And if only in fantasy. I had a chance to prowl through decks and levels, over knee-knockers, through passageways and up and down ladders, to enter ship’s spaces not seen in more than twenty years. It was in these rooms that the seeds of intense first thoughts on my own mortality were planted. I would step aboard U.S.S. Ranger a final time before she left Puget Sound Navy Shipyard without flags or fanfare, absent the traditional white uniformed sailors manning her rails.

Ranger was being prepared to be towed away, with boilers silent and cold under the perpetual darkness of a forgotten warrior. Ranger was being prepared to be rendered for scrap. For the morning, though, she was ours to share with past comrades in arms, to temporarily join physical reality with memory.

One day and two dozen years earlier, I had launched from Ranger’s deck in the predawn Persian Gulf blackness into the unknowns of first combat. In certain ways, it marked the launch of the rest of my life-I was not the same person after that morning. But that was past, worthy of reflection only when surrounded by old squadron-mates, and not as the topic of a moribund séance in a solitary mind. To have this opportunity presented at such a time in my life bared its teeth at coincidence, challenged life with the stubborn insistence of a young man’s-and an old salt of a warship’s-denial of fate.

Ross Wilhelm, a VA-145 B/N and friend, had called me on the Monday before the tour with the Ranger invitation. The U.S.S. Ranger was decommissioned in 1993. She had fought off the blow torches and junk yard cranes for 22 years. Why scrap her now?

The more I thought about it, though, the more appropriate it seemed to be; everything goes away, everybody dies-that’s just the way things are. Maybe it was better to grapple with this fact in the close combat of reality than to push it off until it could no longer be ignored; before the facts of life intercepted a tired mind’s fantasies in an ambush of truth.

Tugg Thompson was one of those old friends traveling to Bremerton to say goodbye, a friend who fortunately had retired from the navy and still had an identification card and access to navy facilities. We had both been pilots when on active duty, but I would succumb today and sit in the right seat of his silver Accord and let him do the driving onto the navy base.

My son, Jared, sat in back, skipping school for a lesson in history from has-been shipmates, given on a ship that hadn’t sailed in decades. As we drove onto the Keystone Ferry to travel from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, Tugg’s descriptions of past victories and foibles were unrelenting in their energy; he was a tenacious energizer bunny with a heart as big as his enthusiasm for flight, with every word threatening to spin out of control with a fiery clap of his hands. It would be a lesson for Jared not available in a dozen weeks or years of school.

The ferry rolled in the unseen swell of a wintry, still-dark, pre-dawn, priming our memories and arming our resolve. Once in Port Townsend, it would be a one hour drive to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, where Ross Wilhelm would meet us for the tour. We would need to be off the Ranger ninety minutes later, as she was slated to leave Bremerton in four weeks for the tow around the Cape of Magellan, and then north to Brownsville, Texas. For a ship to die on dry ground took a great deal of preparation indeed.

A half dozen other squadron mates had opted to regret the invite, stating honestly-if imperfectly-that the event would just be too sad.

This I could not fully understand. I had a vague sense of how a soft melancholy might threaten, but to have tales of the past intrude on the present, to manifest themselves through real, physical emotion?

No. To me, it was a celebration of a long-closed chapter, one so distant through the ravages of time, so alien to today’s reality, that it was difficult to quite believe that the memories were real.

Would it have been better to have Ranger slowly rust away pier-side without urgency or reason? Would it have been happier to know that Ranger, bereft of visitors or mission, would slowly flake into obscurity? Wasn’t the scrap pile just the sort of tidy closure that so many seemed to be searching for in life? Wasn’t this cause to celebrate the past?

My mood was far from sad when we got to Ranger. Walking her passageways was energizing as I eagerly peered into each darkened space for a glimpse of the familiar. The view was not disappointing-it was as if movers had come for her furniture and wall hangings, but left behind everything else unmolested.
Walking the passages, which had always been bare, it looked the same as walking onto the darkened ship after a night of liberty in port: mostly quiet, but with the jarring yells of returned revelers always threatening.

Or, was it more akin to the walk from Mid-rats to the stateroom in the middle of the rolling night, standing the alert 15, heavy flight gear hanging loosely on an uncaring young frame, prepared and eager for the urgency of a surprise launch: something vitally important, a mission. It was both. And it was neither. It was real.

I left Ranger seeing and sharing with Jared far more than expected and feeling pretty damn good, without a hint of sadness. I asked Tugg on the return drive how he felt and he agreed. Memories, as important as they are, must be left in the past. Not only is there no choice in the matter, but if allowed to flow with life’s natural energy, it is better.
Beauty effortlessly comes in many forms; the challenge is to accept beauty on her own terms. Old friendships work that way.

When life moves fast

I was introduced to the concept of “Pretenders” and “Contenders” in 1985 by Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup, United States Marine Corps, while attending Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida. He had been assigned to AOCS as the Chief Drill Instructor just a week prior to our graduation and commissioning as Ensigns in the United States Navy.

AOCS was a physically and mentally intense fourteen week training program that was, in the final analysis, all “pretend.” The academics, the brutal exercise sessions, the calculated abuse, were all conducted in a carefully controlled environment (although we didn’t know it at the time) to build stress to near real world levels with the goal of teaching us how to survive as Navy pilots and flight officers.

Still, everyone took AOCS extremely seriously.

There was one essential component of the training that enabled AOCS to rise above its contrived roots of pretense and challenge us to be true “Contenders”: the drill instructors.

My drill instructor, like all of the tightly screened noncommissioned officers selected for AOCS duty, lived in a world of “locked up” discipline that verged on religion. In fourteen weeks, my assessment of Staff Sergeant Gerhardt, United States Marine Corps, went from brutal sadist to mentor and hero, even though his actions were remarkably consistent throughout the experience. I was the one who changed.

Two images from the experience stay fresh in my mind, each associated with a lesson learned on my final day at AOCS that I am only now really coming to appreciate.

The first is that of Staff Sergeant Gerhardt’s enigmatic expression as I hand him the traditional silver dollar to convey my thanks for his training.

Eyes as serious as death; an almost undetectable curl at the edge of lip, perhaps representing a grudging nod to life’s penchant for irony; and an aura of absolute respect absent the tiniest hint of the disdainful snarl offered by the same man just a week earlier.

The image moves; it is alive, and my drill instructor is ageless. Staff Sergeant Gerhardt, United States Marine Corps, exercises reality’s cautious deliberation with a single hand, raised in the perfect edge of a salute. His fingers quiver in muscular tension as the salute reaches its apex, and with the barest acknowledgement of a descent, the hand disappears as if a magician’s trick.

It took me decades to truly understand that Staff Sergeant Gerhardt was not saluting me that day 29 years ago. Certainly, he was paying respect to the new rank, but there was more to it – he was saluting my accomplishment. He was honoring my perseverance in making it through AOCS.

He was saluting the person that I now knew I could be.

Instead of honoring a one dimensional snapshot of fleeting achievement, he was saluting the human potential that resides in all of us as we rise to challenge.

It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to broaden my understanding of the second AOCS image to its rightful importance. The scene is from within the AOCS barracks.

With no fanfare and no one to witness it, Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup calls our class to form up in the hallway.

Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup has been here before. The last time he walked these halls, it was with the same sense of noble urgency. Then, he faced the inevitable statistical horrors of Vietnam. Many of the young men that took a similar printed card from him during that tour did not return alive.
He walks up to us slowly, hands us each a small card, and looking me square in the eye asks without inflection, “Which will it be?”

I remember looking down at that card for the first of what would be many times in my life, in reflection if not always in reality. It read:

“In life, there are Pretenders, and there are Contenders. The question is – which are you?”

It is only now, at a not-so-spry 52 years of age that I begin to feel comfortable tackling the question. The honest truth is that I’ve been both Pretender and Contender at different points in my life, but as Staff Sergeant Gerhardt’s salute taught me, what one has done in the past is not what is important; what matters is how you resolve to live every day of your life, starting right now.

The past six months has been challenging to me in unprecedented ways. I initiated an on-the-water/underwater research project with the intent of writing about the experience in my next book. The short summary is that there is plenty to write about.

One of the unforeseen lessons from the experience was the degree to which I was still connected to an identity that I honestly thought had been left behind years earlier. Suffice it to say that I took on challenges that I would not have considered five years ago, and I got beat up pretty good and in the traditional sense failed to meet some of them, a few by a very long shot.

My Parkinson’s grew dramatically worse during the same six months, and I did my best to hide my near-constant pain. Each Parkinson’s transition – and there are now as many as a dozen a day – was accompanied by a wave of deep futility, a sensation of running in deep, immovable sand, of fighting a losing battle with a desperately urgent outcome in the balance. Unimaginably powerful ennui became my daily companion, a listlessness that is almost impossible to shake.

I would show up at my boat for often 10 hours of non-stop concentrated effort, fighting wiggles, painfully deep muscle contortions, debilitating fatigue, and surprise anxiety attacks of dizzying intensity.

And as I dragged my reluctant body home in absolute exhaustion, I would marvel at how lucky I truly was, because unlike most people I know (I’m fairly certain), I was honestly and soulfully happy: occasionally embarrassed for my short comings and difficult to explain changing limitations, but happy.

I was also tired, hungry, proud, scared, and many other states, but as I took on each new challenge – most of which were tasks I had given up all hope of ever tackling again four or five years ago – and succeeded in some and failed miserably in others, I realized a fundamental truth carelessly tossed aside as a child: winning or losing really doesn’t matter so long as you did your level best and never quit.

Parkinson’s disease is a sneaky son of a bitch, but I had endured, persevered, relentlessly refused to quit until the small victories were stacked high all around me, even though I was the only one who could see them.

And then, PD’s churlish specter found a chink in my armor. I had faced surprise attacks before, but none as cleverly devastating as this.

In the final several weeks of the project’s research, the tight quarters, stress, and risks of varying sorts combined in a crescendo of pressure and circumstance that allowed me to finally see clearly the fiendishly cruel nature of my adversary.

I knew that my symptoms had grown to the point of distraction, but it was not clear to me what that really meant until I saw for myself. I had been placing a GoPro video camera at different spots on the boat to jog my memory and help fill out detail in the coming winter when I actually started to write. I watched the videos.

It was immediately evident that my symptoms no longer just affected me; they had a direct and immediate impact on everyone around me. My nervous shuffle made everyone on edge; my gloomy struggle back from dystonia would bring everyone down, even my light-hearted wiggles made it difficult to look in my direction. I was a visual train wreck of distraction. And to top it off, my voice became so soft and muffled that is was virtually impossible to understand me at times.

I saw the video and it was painfully obvious that these were legitimate complaints: it is damn hard to be around me. This is not an indictment of anyone, it is simply a fact. Parkinson’s had found a way in.

Parkinson’s has attacked me in a highly vulnerable spot: it is attempting to isolate me, to push away those around me and eliminate the relationships that make life what it is. And for now, it might be winning.

For the first time since my diagnoses, I am very concerned. I am also emboldened. I have learned tricks to get around past attacks, and I will learn new ones to beat PD’s latest end run.

Twenty-nine years later, here’s my answer: I am a Contender.

Memorial Day. Memory: apart from time and distance

I try not to dwell on things; whether good, bad, or indifferent. Focusing on one aspect of life for too long tends to warp perspective and turns what was likely a good and positive reason for considering a matter into an unhealthy topic with increasingly negative ramifications as the disproportionate attention continues.

But honest reflection – elevated with the nuances of individual personality, character, and sense of introspection – is almost always positive.

It is not always easy separating the two concepts and military service can make it more difficult, and also potentially either more damaging or more beneficial depending on the balance one is able to achieve during reflection.

During my ten years of active duty as a Navy pilot, I – like most in the military – had ample opportunity to test this dichotomy, but finally, I believe that I’m in relative balance emotionally and objectively with what each of the people listed below have brought and taken from life.

Not just my life, but life as a thought, process, conflict, and most of all – a series of relationships.

The following names, call signs, and nicknames represent real and complete people who have impacted me with their lives. Some I was close to, others were professional acquaintances. They are all remembered, not just this day, but every day – you are not forgotten.

John Calhoun: my friend through flight school and roommate while undergoing initial A-6 flight training. Killed during a night, low-level training mission in the Cascade Mountains.

Richard Hobby: John’s instructor B/N who perished that same night in 1988.

Jay Cook: fellow student in the A-6 training squadron at Whidbey. Killed in a refueling fire at Cubi Point airfield after his parachute failed to open in time due to being outside the envelope for the “zero-zero” Intruder ejection seat.

Jim Dunne: fellow student in the A-6 training squadron at Whidbey. Killed in a day, training low-low level flight somewhere in Japan.

Tom Costen: Casual friend in our sister A-6 squadron during Operation Desert Storm. Pilot killed on the second night of the war while mining the approach to the Umm Qasr Naval Base in Iraq.

Charlie Turner: Casual friend in our sister A-6 squadron during Operation Desert Storm and dinner companion for our last meal in the states before deploying. B/N killed on the second night of the war while mining the approach to the Umm Qasr Naval Base in Iraq.

“LZ”: Don’t recall his real name, but a pilot and acquaintance attached to the Marine Corp A-6 squadron on USS Ranger during the 1989 cruise. Eric Klug and I acted as wingman for him after his D-704 refueling drogue would not stow and had to be guillotined before shipboard recovery. Our job: too let him know if he was on fire and to eject. Killed conducting Close Air Support flying a Harrier outside Kuwait City, Operation Desert Storm.

Steve Garcia: Former instructor of mine during initial Intruder training who put forth great effort in helping me navigate the unknown waters of dealing with my roommate, John Calhoun’s mishap. Pilot killed during an air show practice at NAS Whidbey.

Rick Andrews: Former instructor of mine during initial Intruder training. We went on a memorable cross country to Centennial Airport in Denver. B/N killed during an air show practice at NAS Whidbey.

Charlie Braun: Former instructor of mine during initial Intruder training. I do not recall particulars of his mishap.

Steve Hazelrigg: First Commanding Officer in my fleet squadron, VA-145. After command went on to be CO of Pax River test facility. Killed on an A-6 test flight due in part to the lack of a command ejection system in the Intruder.

Dan Dewespilere (sp?): Acquaintance and previous instructor in A-6 training squadron. Killed flying day training low-level along Columbia River.

Mike Norman: Friend, went through AOCS and primary flight training in T-34s. Next door neighbor in Pensacola who used to regularly come over for dinner. Killed in F-4 demo flight at a California Air Show.

Bug Roach: Famous LSO who came out of “retirement” to wave for Ranger aircrew during Desert Storm. Killed during ejection over Southern California waters after parachute failed to open.

Bill Braker: Friend and fellow A-6 instructor. Killed during a night vision goggle rendezvous after transitioning to F/A-18s.

Tilting at Windmills: Limitations of the professional aviation safety model in sport diving

In 1985 I joined the Navy. After a 14 week stint at Aviation Officer Candidate School (“An Officer and a Gentleman”), I began pilot training.

Military life was a different world in all sorts of ways (I still fold my “skivvies” in a 6” X 6” square, but at least I no longer iron them), and the changes in routine ranged from confusing, to frustrating, and occasionally even to the welcome.

Naval Aviation’s attitude toward safety fell into the welcome category, and it was immediately apparent to me that sport diving could benefit from some of the lessons learned operating from the carrier deck.

But, as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details,” and I had to wonder which aspects of Naval Aviation’s methodical “systems” approach to safety were transferrable to sport diving, and which were not. What appeared at first glance as an easy task in 1985 became more complex with each passing year.

Naval Aviation’s safety program permeates every aspect of both training and actual operations; it is not open to negotiation. In contrast, it was clear to me that for practical purposes a single, cohesive “dive community” did not even exist.

Each dive certification agency at the time (and maybe still?) was in active competition for new students, there was little standardization, and recreational divers lacked a common goal or purpose.

Because the Navy’s rapid training cycle did not allow for the accumulation of significant experience (experience being the single greatest contributing factor to proficiency, in my opinion) prior to operational deployment, the training system had to pick up the slack from day one.

No such sophisticated safety system exists or probably can exist in sport diving, where the primary incentive for participation is recreation.

It was still puzzling, however, why so few individual components of Naval Aviation’s successful safety program had translated effectively to diving. It appeared that even the most fundamental of safety lessons learned by the Navy, such as the disciplined use of briefing checklists, had not been widely adopted outside of the military.

There’s a saying in Naval Aviation: “You need a plan to deviate from…” Without a baseline of coordinated expectations prior to a flight, a reasoned response to the inevitable surprises that crop up is impossible, especially if limited in experience.

With that in mind, I saw an obvious place to start. It seemed a no-brainer to me that a reasonably thorough briefing before a dive would be an obviously worthwhile safety enhancement for virtually every diver.

In 2004, I decided to mass produce a dive safety briefing checklist based on my experience flying A-6 Intruder carrier attack jets. The goal was to create a short, easy to use checklist that would take an experienced buddy team of sport or technical divers a nominal 30 minutes to brief the first time it was used, and then perhaps 15 minutes to review prior to subsequent dives.

The checklist was purposefully short because it was assumed that a truly comprehensive “Naval Aviation style” brief (minimum of one hour; as long as four hours for a complex strike – this does not include planning time) would meet resistance from participants in a sport motivated primarily by a desire to have fun. Whether “fun” was defined as a relaxed tropical dive on a shallow reef or a deep, highly complex wreck or cave penetration was moot. In the final analysis, sport divers share no common mission other than to have a widely varied definition of “fun.”

The checklist served as a briefing tool between dive team members as well as with surface support personnel to clearly define basic responsibilities and procedures utilized in the most common aspects of open-circuit diving. Briefing examples included such varied items as an in-depth discussion of each diver’s gear configuration and the plan for transferring an incapacitated diver from the water back into the boat.

The briefing checklist was a total failure.

Granted, it was designed for function over glitz. Printed in black and white on a hard, durable two-sided plastic card with rewritable blank spaces, it was not especially pretty. It certainly did not fit in with gear purchased by divers who cared about the color of their fins.

But I believe the failure was due to more than a lack of curb appeal. I had grossly underestimated the average diver’s willingness to slow down the “fun” long enough with what could be perceived as a 15 to 30 minute “downer” of a brief talking about all the things that could go wrong.

There was an obvious conclusion to draw: an honest understanding and desire for a culture of safety simply did not exist in diving as was enjoyed by professional aviation. Thorough briefings provide pilots with the “warm and fuzzy” of being truly prepared for any contingency. Sport divers seemed to consider a thorough briefing checklist alarmist at best and overall a nuisance of limited value.

This story serves as an illustration of the fundamental difference between diving and professional aviation that makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate the central beneficial feature of an aviation safety program into sport diving: the structural ability to develop a professional culture – or “system” – of safety.

Please do not misunderstand; there are definitely transferrable practices and procedures in professional aviation that have been or will be (and most definitely should be) adapted to diving. My point is that the limitations of utilizing an aviation safety model in total are significant and probably insurmountable.

Not recognizing this fact could conceivably lead to misplaced confidence, complacency, and potentially new, unforeseen types of mishaps to begin to develop in diving. The law of unintended consequences comes to mind.

Here’s an example.

Required aviation skills such as maintaining adequate situational awareness, or “SA,” serve as an example of a developed aptitude that might only be possible to widely implement in an organization that possesses a culture – or system – of professional safety.

SA as a practical skill can be thought of as a pilot’s mental picture of the location and attitude of his or her aircraft and all surrounding aircraft in three dimensions, the status of an aircraft’s mechanical systems, the aircraft’s progress along a navigation plan, weather considerations, communication requirements and status within the cockpit and with all outside players (for example air traffic control or other jets in a strike package), and other mission-specific considerations such as enemy threats, all updated constantly in real time.

Finally, this cumulative awareness needs to be preserved while flying an aircraft under extreme stress due to mission requirements (i.e. getting shot at) or system failure (e.g. engine fire).

When an emergency arises, none of the above listed SA components can be automatically jettisoned to accommodate a pilot’s mental capacity to handle the new situation. When a pilot is overwhelmed by new information and rapidly changing circumstances, an automatic prioritization process of identifying and disregarding the least important input at that particular point in time must occur.

“Task saturation” is the technical term for this feeling of being totally overwhelmed, of literally drowning in a sea of inputs (the sensation can initially make even breathing difficult), secure in the unsettling, deeply seated understanding that multiple complex decisions need to be made right now, and that choosing the wrong course of action will likely lead to your death or that of someone else in the flight.

There are numerous catchy phrases for task saturation, such as making room in a pilot’s “bucket” (i.e. head) for surprise decisions and tasks.

Seamless delegation and prioritization of the tasks required for mission completion, first, and survival, second, are routinely practiced by Navy pilots in extremely complex simulator sessions and during actual training flights.

A true safety system ensures that every pilot spends a significant amount of time in scheduled, recurring training with a “full bucket.”

When task saturation then occurs in the real world, as it inevitably will, the pressure of being overwhelmed is mitigated by lots of intense practice spent in this regime. Experiencing the sensation of a “full bucket” in a life and death situation is certainly still stressful, but it definitely does not come as a surprise, and it is in fact a familiar feeling.

Having the opportunity to spend time with a “full bucket” is not fun, and many pilots would probably skip the training if given the choice, that is, until they encounter a real-life situation where their “bucket over-flow-eth.” But they are not given the choice.

Many aspiring pilots wash out because they simply “can’t hack it”: they do not possess the “right stuff” to get the job done. The only way to know this for certain is through rigorous, highly complex simulations followed by closely monitored – and at times extremely dangerous – actual flights.

There’s another Naval Aviation saying, a bit hackneyed, but applicable all the same: “The more you train in peace, the less you bleed in war.”

And when all is said and done, despite hugely expensive, mandated recurring practice and testing in complex simulators, “Loss of SA” is still a frequent causal factor for many Naval Aviation mishaps.

Virtually no determined sport divers need fear being barred from diving altogether because he or she is unwilling or unable to adapt to a model approach to safety.

Operating within the unyielding confines of a true safety system offers other advantages as well. Professional aviation’s success in not making the same mistakes twice is well established. This is made possible by the requirement to document every incident and disseminate this detailed information to a centralized body for future training improvements, with the process being guaranteed by a system of strict accountability enforced by an established chain of command, either military or civilian.

DAN does a phenomenal job as a limited central clearing house for sport diving mishap summaries. Could you imagine how busy DAN would be if every sport diving incident, big and small, was required to be reported?

Now add in what if every recreational diver were required to read every single report in a timely fashion, prior to every single diver being thoroughly trained in any new procedures or policies introduced as a result of lessons learned from the mishap?

It is this type of uniformity that allows for the existence of a highly complex, but common and intuitively understood, language that reinforces a culture of safety in Naval Aviation and serves to self perpetuate these lessons as one of many intrinsic feedback loops.

A true safety system is structurally organized to constantly and automatically learn and improve.

In my opinion, the extreme demands of system standardization, training, and tested, consistent performance at the highest level, all overseen by a clearly defined and empowered chain of command with actual clout, can be described, but must be experienced to be truly appreciated.

This is in essence what produces a culture of professionalism in safety. These are the components that enable the development of a true “safety system.”

It’s my guess that the vast majority of divers do not have direct, actual experience participating in a relentlessly demanding organization such as professional aviation, and particularly military flying with its more evolved concept of allowable levels of risk.

This is the salient point: it is the entirety of many complex pieces that allow the professional aviation system to be so safe. In my opinion, a “system,” or culture of professional safety, as experienced in aviation simply does not and cannot exist in a sport conducted at the end of the day for enjoyment and lacking a chain of command, common mission or purpose, vast funding, and standards which preclude participation by a large number of aspirants.

There is much to be gained by divers in studying aviation safety practices, but as every pilot knows, complacency is the greatest danger. I would encourage sport divers to utilize the individual pieces of professional aviation practice that prove useful to safety, but also to recognize that these are but small components of the overall system and subject to significant limitations.

For diving to adopt a true safety system with the fidelity of professional aviation would require rules and resources that would defeat the purpose of the sport: to enable the average person to enjoy the underwater environment.

But that’s just my opinion; I’d love to hear yours…

The author was a Navy carrier pilot for a decade, spent another ten years flying for United Airlines, and holds a University of Washington Masters in Strategic Planning for Critical Infrastructure, a graduate program heavily reliant on systems theory and risk management.

Veteran’s Day

Being a combat veteran is not simple. A personal incident from several months ago comes to mind as an illustration. Please let me explain.
I had been invited to a dinner sponsored by the Northwest chapter of the Intruder Association in an effort to drum up support and build ties between Vietnam era aviators and those from follow on decades.

The thinking was that a local author might provide a bit of leverage to jump start the process and close the gap.

With the official presentations and introductions over, one gent immediately caught my attention as he weaved between diners in a bee-line directly to me in the restaurant of the Oak Harbor Yacht Club.

He carried himself with a confident yet relaxed stride that seemed to match his disheveled, but comfortably neat attire. He squared off in front of me.
“I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your book.” He looked at me with intelligent intensity.

Ten minutes earlier the guy had been alternating his attention between light-heartedly bidding on various A-6 sketches for charity and entertaining his grandson, although the man didn’t look or act old enough to be a grandparent.
He carried himself with the self-confidence of a well-liked and skilled aviator who also aspired to the class-clown mantle and frankly didn’t give a damn about any perceived inconsistency.

Instantly, I admired him. I mumbled something back about it probably being a pale shadow of his experiences flying Intruders in Vietnam.

“Killing people is killing people.” He replied.

He said it without hesitation. He didn’t lower his voice or offer a subtle apology, and of course there was no reason he should have.

After all, that was the common thread between most of us in the room – we had all killed people from the platform of the old A-6 Intruder, a retired Navy low-level bomber. Still, the straightforward honesty jolted me into refreshing alertness.

“Yes, that’s true.” I replied evenly. I liked this guy. I respected this guy a lot.
Veterans should be thanked at least once a year, but to those who have not served please be forewarned: things are not as simple or straightforward as they might seem. I am proud of my time in the Navy and my combat experience.

And that pride is deeply unsettling.

Life carries many contradictions. Combat magnifies that effect exponentially.
When you thank a veteran today, it’s okay not to know the full extent of what you are thanking him for, but please: pry only if invited and remember that compassion need not be familiar with circumstance to be honest.

Thanks to all my fellow veterans.

“The Swordsmen delivered more than 2 million pounds of ordnance and flew 1358.8 flight hours during Operation Desert Storm. VA-145 was officially credited with destroying or severely damaging 33 tanks, 48 artillery pieces, 41 naval vessels, 25 missile components, 23 conventional and chemical munitions bunkers, 13 oil facilities, 7 communications sites, 5 hangars, 8 piers, 2 barracks, a bridge, a power plant, and a rail yard. Additionally, the squadron mined 4 critical lines of communication.

The only number that was conspicuously missing was the one we would never know – how many people we had killed.”

– From the closing chapter of Angles of Attack, an A-6 Intruder pilots War