On regulations


When I was in pilot training, I had a crusty, old, retired C-130 pilot as a ground instructor.  He liked to tell us wet-behind-the-ears lieutenants that:

Regulations are guidance to the wise,
and for the strict obedience of fools.

And he would go on to explain that

A wise person understands why the regulation exists, and therefore when it applies.
More importantly, the wise person understands when a rule does not apply.

But he wasn’t done yet:

If you are a fool… and I know that some of you are…
you will always follow the rules and regulations to the letter.
By doing so, they will save your ass, time and time again,
until the day when they don’t apply.
On that day, when you follow the rules
after they stopped making sense,
if you are very, very lucky,
no one will die.

He then told a story of flying into Iceland with medical supplies, critical for saving the life of an injured serviceman. He had flown into that airport many, many times before.  He knew where every tower and obstruction was in the area.  There was no wind, but there was thick low-level fog, causing zero-zero visibility. He was flying the ILS approach, which is flown by relying almost entirely on instruments in the cockpit until reaching a pre-determined height, called the decision height (DH). At DH, the pilot looks outside the cockpit, and if he can see the runway environment, he lands. If he cannot see the runway environment, he goes around.  According to the flight regulations, there is no discretion in this approach.

Today, some aircraft can land in these conditions if they are equipped with the right equipment – it’s called a Category III landing.  This happened years ago before such things existed.

He flew the approach, reached DH, looked out and couldn’t see the runway environment.  Went around, tried again.  No luck.  After a few tries, he decided that the weather wasn’t going to get better.  He knew his own skills, he knew his aircraft, he knew the weather conditions, and he knew his crew.  He asked his crew for permission to fly it down to the ground.  They knew his skills and trusted him.  He flew it to the ground and landed, touching down without ever seeing the runway.

Somewhere, an injured servicemember owes his life today to the philosophy that rules are  guidance.

2 thoughts on “On regulations

  1. Perry

    Nukes (i.e., Navy nuclear power personnel, those who run the reactors on carriers and subs) are among the most rule following group there is. However, they undergo intense education and training about all aspects of their field for precisely this reason: to be able to figure out when the rules may say one thing but the right thing is something else.

    My first CO on USS VIRGINIA (CGN-38) had been Chief Engineer of USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) when she ran aground on a sandbar just off the pier when returning from deployment in 1982. He told us this story to demonstrate when the rules don’t apply. They were trying to pull her off the bar by going back full, when one of the four main engines began to lose vacuum. He ordered the propulsion plan officer of the watch (PPOW) to continue to answer the bell regardless of where vacuum went, but the PPOW closed the throttles when the vacuum reached the point where the procedures said to do so. My CO implied that if the officer had continued to answer the bell, the ship would have made it off the bar, and was quite clear that the PPOW lost his nuke qualification over the incident. My CO had understood the regulations and the reason for them and recognized that the risk of damage to the engine when operating at too low a vacuum was worth the risk to unground the ship, the PPOW could only see the regulations.

    In my mind, the biggest difference between training and education is that training teaches you the rules and how to follow them; education also teaches you the rules, but why they exist so you can determine when NOT to follow them.

    1. Dan Post author

      That’s a great story, Perry.

      In an amazing bit of small-worldism, I beleive my father-in-law (from my first marriage) was also a Chief Engineer of the USS ENTERPRISE, although I couldn’t tell you when.


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