Leadership, risk, the birth of aviation

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Dave Williamson
  • 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron Commander
I recently devoured a fascinating book titled, "Profiles in Audacity: Great Decisions and How They Were Made," by Alan Axelrod. It contains inspiring accounts of how great leaders made a momentous impact in history. Some people often take for granted the personal and professional risk taken by many visionary leaders as if their successes were obvious and certain.

As an Airman and new commander of the 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, this book caused me to reevaluate the connection between mission risk, personal safety and command. Axelrod's account of Orville and Wilbur Wright and the decisions leading to their famous first flight intrigued me because it illustrated how solid leaders tenaciously integrate risk mitigation and safety into the demands of mission accomplishment.

The first step of mitigation was a foundation of knowledge and competence. In 1878, the Wright Brothers received a flying toy from their father that captured their imaginations. As young men they began efforts to create a version large enough to carry a person, but eventually partially abandoned this pursuit for more practical matters of their full-time bicycle shop. However, the brothers continued to study their passion and even contacted the Smithsonian for every article about the study of flight, both successes and failures.

They followed the news of the famous Otto Lilienthal's glider flights, including the 1896 crash that resulted in his death. For the Wright Brothers, Lilienthal's demise was not a vague historical example of what happens to "other" people. It was fuel for disciplined study and risk evaluation.

To cut safety corners was unnecessary. Of course they didn't use phrases like Operational or Personal Risk Management, but they knew perfect safety would require keeping both feet on the ground, which would never be compatible with the goal of flying. They determined that the biggest contributor to Lilienthal's risk was insufficient control.

In a stroke of genius, the Wright Brothers noticed how an empty rectangular cardboard inner-tube carton could be warped like a bird's wing. This provided a much more predictable and reliable means of controlling their winged designs than Lilienthal's crude reliance upon weight shifting. They built wind tunnels, scale models, and kites to improve performance, control and reliability. They also continued risk mitigation research.

According to the national weather service of the day, there were several locations with consistent 15 knot winds. One of these had natural hills that would assist with launching a flying machine. Kitty Hawk was even naturally furnished with sand to serve as crash pads. The Wright Brothers used themselves as test pilots and rode large kites into the air. As early as 1900, they conducted untethered glides, but something was not right.

The performance of their creations did not match their calculations. Again, they nearly gave up hope and returned to their bicycle shop. However, during lecture preparation about their flight efforts, they discovered an erroneous assumption in their equations.

Once the error was resolved they were able to continue advancing their designs. This culminated in their successes of Dec. 17, 1903 when they attempted their first flight in which Orville flew 120 feet before stalling and crashing. Later that same day, Wilbur successfully took to the skies for 852 feet over an elapsed time of 59 seconds.

The challenges facing these early aviators reflect similar challenges all leaders have at every level: Balance of mission and risk. The 72nd TES is responsible for operational testing of the B-2, and like all military units accepts risk in order to execute the mission. It is the job of leaders within the unit to ensure risk to mission and risk to personnel are mitigated appropriately within the bounds specified for the unit by higher commanders.

As a military, risk is an inevitable component of what we do. It's also why it is so important we understand the connection between leadership and risk mitigation.
The Wright Brothers are a case study in ensuring mission success while responsibly and wisely mitigating risk to mission and personal safety.