100 Years of Naval Aviation: Why diversity matters in flight

2011 is the Centennial of Naval Aviation and will honor aviation pioneers in the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. As we look back on the last 100 years, Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman, an H-60 Jayhawk aircraft commander, offers her perspective on a diverse aircrew and its ability to enhance mission success.

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman, Office of Leadership and Development

Pittman and aircrew drug seizure

Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman is an H-60 Jayhawk aircraft commander and has been stationed at Air Stations Sitka, Alaska, and Clearwater, Florida. Pittman, in the center of the photograph above, worked with her aircrew, Bahamian law enforcement agents and Drug Enforcement Administration agents to successfully interdict a drug shipment in the Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Pittman.

In the late 80s, a series of airline accidents led the Federal Aviation Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration to take a hard look at human factors and how interpersonal communication and decision-making could be taught to improve airline safety. What followed was one of the greatest safety advances in aviation – crew resource management.

Crew resource management, often shortened to CRM, is simply the effective utilization of all available resources to achieve efficient, safe flight operations. As a pilot, I often struggle with trying to explain to people why diversity matters in aviation, but when I read the definition of CRM, I think “that’s it”…diversity is CRM.

C-130 Survey Flight

Crew resource management is one of the key procedure and training systems in aviation and is a way to utilize all available resources to achieve safe flight operations. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen.

One of the most important aspects of CRM is that everyone on the crew has a voice, and everyone, regardless of experience, is responsible for keeping the aircraft safe to the best of their ability; this includes passengers. If I have a passenger in my helicopter, even one who has never flown before, I can write that person off as useless to my crew or I can take advantage of the fact that they have eye and are sitting next to a window. Despite their lack of training, I can give them a little instruction and they can be just as capable as my crewmembers of calling out aircraft, which have the potential to collide with mine.

Many an aircraft has been saved by a sharp, junior, inexperienced crewmember. Often it is because of this lack of experience, and the complacency that may come with experience, which makes them able to see what others cannot. This is what diversity is all about – it’s about maximizing the service’s potential by involving different sets of eyes and hearing everyone’s voice. Diversity is more than gender and race, and we cannot discount what this type of diversity brings to the table and why it needs to be encouraged.

As an aviator, one of my favorite examples of why diversity matters comes from the once male-dominated field of mathematics. For hundreds of years mathematicians theorized that Euclid’s parallel postulate – that only one straight line can pass thorough a point without intersecting another – was wrong, but they couldn’t find a way to model it. In 1997, a Latvian mathematician named Daina Taimina created an easily provable model of what is known as hyperbolic geometry, or an infinite number of straight lines passing through a single point. She developed this model through her everyday hobby of crochet.

Taimina was able to see something hundreds of years of mathematicians couldn’t because she had a hobby they did not.

Hudson River rescue

When US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in early 2009, the pilot’s ability to safely land the aircraft and the flight crew's training and decades of experience, allowed for all 155 passengers and crew to be rescued. Photo courtesy of http://www.palemale.com/huriplcr.html.

Aviation history has routinely mirrored social history. The American civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s paved the way for racial and gender equality in America, the Coast Guard and the field of aviation. A series of lawsuits at the time challenged airlines flight stewardess policies mandating flight stewardesses had to be young, thin, unmarried and female. Men could not be stewardesses and women who married or reached the age of 32 were routinely fired. The successful movement to overturn these policies was not only the right thing to do but some could argue it has saved lives.

On January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River and all 155 passengers were safely evacuated. The flight attendants on the flight had from 27 to 39 years of experience. The men and women who fought for equal rights in the 60s and 70s may not have been able to prove at the time why their right to do the job they loved mattered to the airlines, but more than 20 years later those 155 passengers owe some small measure of thanks to them for ensuring they had such an experienced and diverse crew when it mattered most.

We may not be able to always articulate why diversity matters, but experience has taught us that we are more effective and safer and the mission gets done more often, if we learn to use everyone we have to their maximum potential. Shutting people out and shutting people down didn’t work in aviation and it doesn’t work in the world in general.

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