There are co-workers you love, some you like and then there are the rest of them. I posted a couple of blogs about my friend, Frank. With a little work, we became good friends. But there have been others that were just as hard to win over.
Steve was the chief test pilot for an aerial refueling platform, a tanker. I became assigned to the program developing this tanker for an international partner as part of an effort to right some design wrongs that were preventing delivery of the vehicle to the customer. Some of the best technical experts in the company became part of this team. Steve, having been part of the original gang of engineers, designers and aircrew was skeptical that this group of outsiders could be beneficial.
My job was to work crew issues with the refueling operation. A bad design restricted the operator from safely refueling another aircraft. Having worked with aircrews over the past ten years, I developed what one of my mentors called ‘user empathy’. The best way to describe it is the ability to put yourself into the crewmember’s shoes and make design decisions based on how a particular mission is executed. This requires some experience and perspective.
Am I able to fly a plane? No, that would take a whole other set of skills. Do I have a feel for where controls and displayed data need to be for the crew to be effective? For the most part, I do. Intuition, discussion with crews, absorbing information from other more experienced engineers, all add up to obtaining a level of understanding to make the crews’ flight lives more bearable.
Previous efforts to take the crew’s inputs on designs had been ignored throughout this program. Steve and the other crew were understandably pessimistic about this new team of strangers being able to change the bad design. Having worked unsuccessfully with other engineers in this field of human factors, he was likewise doubtful of my abilities.
I began by organizing regular meetings with the crew to allow them an opportunity to identify specific shortcomings. Just having someone listen to their concerns seemed to be a relief to them. The individual issues were assigned to specific groups to work. Some involved redesign others were new ideas. Over the next months progress was made. Design changes were made and soon it was time to take our newfound knowledge to flight.
I showed up for the first flight in full gear, only to be told I had not been cleared by Steve to fly. No reason was given, other than he didn’t want a lot of people on the aircraft. Given that my job was to assist the crew, this meant documenting observations during the flight, especially when they were performing their job of refueling. Not being on the plane I would have to learn these things second hand from other engineers not specifically trained in user empathy.
That first flight was cancelled, so I now had some time to work the issue of getting me on the flight. After some cajoling and pleading, Steve acquiesced and I was allowed on my first flight.
Nervous and excited, I sat through the pre-brief session, which goes over a checklist of in flight test points. We climbed onboard the 767 outfitted with the refueling equipment. Part of the indoctrination for virgin passengers permitted us to sit in the cockpit. I sat to the left and just behind Steve. I guessed he wanted to keep tabs on me.
Take off was rather thrilling, it was just a whole different perspective seeing the runway roll by and the cockpit lifting up towards the sky. Soon we were aloft and I headed to the boom operator’s station to do my job. After running flight patterns, our test points complete, we headed back to the base.
I took my seat in the cockpit and enjoyed the ride home. One of the last test points, which had been covered in the pre-brief but that didn’t register with me until I was sitting in the cockpit, was to practice a hard landing. I could only imagine what that meant.
So as we rolled towards the runway and the flight almost complete, Steve made a very sharp turn, an alarm went off, which I thought was some kind of stall warning, and the plane came down lower and lower to land. The plane landed full onto its wheels with a jolt to the cabin. I’m guessing success was measured by the fact that we came to a stop and nothing was damaged, nobody died.
I imagined Steve did this on purpose because it was my first flight. I know better because that is a lot of property and other lives to risk for something juvenile like that. Still, I became ever more leery of Steve and his capability to like me. Would we ever be able to be on common ground?