Tom Garrity

Lessons from a Military Jet Crash

In Crisis Communication on March 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm
09crash_650A Marine pilot navigating his military jet on a routine training runs over the San Diego area encounters an issue forcing him to shut down one engine. 
Then, another engine shows low fuel. 
The route his air traffic controllers have chosen takes the jet fighter over a populated part of Southern California.
His aircraft nosing into the ground, the pilot waits until the last possible moment to eject. F/A-18 Hornet crashes into a neighborhood killing four people on the ground. All of the victims are related.
The lone survivor of the family offered forgiveness in the midst of an unthinkable grief.
The Marines promised a full inquiry. Cynical onlookers thought it would be a private investigation never to “fully” see the light of day.
However, as Peggy Noonan wrote in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, the Marines did an about face on past protocol and showed tremendous transparency in their promised follow-up:
They could not have been tougher, or more damning. The crash, said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, the assistant wing commander for the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, was “clearly avoidable,” the result of “a chain of wrong decisions.” Mechanics had known since July of a glitch in the jet’s fuel-transfer system; the Hornet should have been removed from service and fixed, and was not. The young pilot failed to read the safety checklist. He relied on guidance from Marines at Miramar who did not have complete knowledge or understanding of his situation. He should have been ordered to land at North Island. He took an unusual approach to Miramar, taking a long left loop instead of a shorter turn to the right, which ate up time and fuel. Twelve Marines were disciplined; four senior officers, including the squadron commander, were removed from duty. Their military careers are, essentially, over. The pilot is grounded while a board reviews his future.
In a crisis, there are always four audiences that need to be addressed: victims, employees, customers and the media. The level of compassion an organization shows to the victims will help to determine how successful they will be in weathering the storm of public opinion.
The Marines didn’t pull any punches. Their transparency showed compassion to victims in an immeasurable way.  Accidents will occur again. However, when it happens, the victims can point to a new level of openness that will help answer their plaguing question of “why?”
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