When deviations become normal, people can die

We mostly take flying for granted. For those who travel often and regularly, the entire experience, from airport parking to emerging into the fresh air at the other end, tends to be moderately unpleasant.

No number of air miles compensates for the stale air, the occasionally irritating folk with whom you share the cramped tube, the frightful food and the mind-sapping boredom which leads you to eat it.us air force

In the 1950s and 60s there was a small group of fliers for whom none of the above applied. They were rocket pilots whose craft was the X-15. Without it, and them, the US space programme would almost certainly have failed.


Journalist Michelle Evans’ book ‘The X-15 Rocket Plane – Flying the first wings into space’ is a riveting read for aviation anoraks (a category into which I comfortably fit). As well as a fascinating story of men and machines, the book clearly illuminates several practical lessons of inestimable value to us all.

There are two which stick out for me: first, when deviations from the norm become the new normal, the consequent risk changes to vertical.

Second, when people see something going amiss yet fail to speak up, the likelihood of problems swiftly moves from possibility to certainty.

In certain circumstances, such as operating theatres and cockpits, unresolved problems often lead to death. This is a central theme made immediate using dramatic examples in ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed.

Twelve men flew the X-15, arguably the most dangerous series of missions in the history of aviation thus far. Only one of them,black box Mike Adams, lost his life flying the X-15. But it should not have happened.

In 1967 when the accident occurred, X-15 programme engineer Harry Shapiro and pilot Robert White reached conclusions about Adams’ fatal crash that illustrate the roots of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters

“The deviation from normal was accepted as being the new normal. Any variance from expected parameters should never be considered routine and certainly not ‘normal’. People died in all three cases because of complacency, not wanting to be the one to stand up and say anything was wrong.”

This made me ask myself: would I question someone in authority if I thought they were mistaken? What would I risk to speak up?

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 26 January.