By Don Mathis, Kinetic Social CEO.
In military aviation, the “OODA Loop” has the status of a biblical commandment: thou shalt Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It is a decision framework which has utility across military operations … and in business too.
My first practical application of OODA occurred as a young Flight Communications Officer in a Navy P-3 squadron. We were over the North Atlantic, during a Search and Rescue mission that went (very much) awry. The fact that I’m here to write about it is testament to the skills and training of my crew, imbued with the OODA mandate. Its power as a decision-making framework was indelibly imprinted on me that day.
I’ve written about leadership lessons in the context of crisis management in my post, “Double, double toil and trouble” (parts #1 and part#2) … this is a different spin on lessons learned in a crisis environment while serving with the Navy.
The scene: we were flying a Search and Rescue (SAR) mission looking for a missing woman. She had been trying to sail the North Atlantic solo. We were part of a multinational search effort, over the middle of the ocean (not far from where the Titanic sank, as one of our crew later pointed out). The weather was “rough as a cob”, with heavy overcast, a broken cloud layer at about 1,000 feet, moderate to severe turbulence and 25-foot swells in the dark seas below.
Our 10 member crew was flying the venerable P-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop patrol aircraft used for anti-submarine warfare … but which doubled as a pretty good long-range SAR platform. Three were on the flight deck, the rest of us “tuberats” operated from the main compartment of the plane.
Important fact in the story: we had our #1 engine in “loiter shutdown” to conserve fuel and extend our time on station (the plane’s engines are numbered one to four, starting with #1 on the far left side of the aircraft, and ending at #4 on the far right). Shutting down #1 was common on station.
Our hopes of finding anyone alive in that witches-brew of a sea were slim (and as it turned out, the target of our search was never found). We’d been briefed that the woman may have abandoned her sailboat in a red life raft; this would be extremely difficult to find in the rough waves, and so we were flying a tight search pattern low over the water – about 500 feet. All windows were manned, infrared video feed was being monitored, and our radar was operating. I was staring intently out my bubble window; my station was positioned just aft of the flight deck. And I was trying hard not to get air sick from the bumpy ride as I tried to keep a good look-out.
At some point as we lumbered along boring holes through the sky, the aft port window observer called out a red object in the swells below (an adrift ocean buoy, we later found out from the Coast Guard C-130 that replaced us on station). The pilot yanked the aircraft into a steep left bank to circle back to the sighting.
And that’s right when things went bad.
As the pilot applied a steep bank angle to turn us around and inspect the red object we’d seen, the #2 engine “crapped out” in the banking turn. For those keeping count at home, that’s two engines out on the same side of the aircraft.
Now, the (awesome) P-3 Orion can loiter for hours on station with two engines shut down … but most crews avoid shutting down two engines on the same side of the plane. It’ll fly that way, weight, weather, and fuel permitting (it can even fly on just one engine under the proper circumstances). But this needs to be managed carefully, and in our case, just about everything that you’d prefer not to be the case with two engines out on the same side was indeed the case: we were heavy with fuel, we were at a relatively low airspeed, we were under 500 feet of altitude, and we were at a steep angle of bank.
When I was still in my initial training, I was once sitting in our medical clinic at the Naval Air Station, getting my annual flight physical. One of my instructors happened to be there, and as we were waiting for our EKGs, we got into a discussion of when problems occurred in flight. There were probably thirty people waiting in chairs lined up in the passageway. My instructor had me stand up and face the doors down at the end of the passage, where outside, it was a nice day. He said, “See the sunlight out there? That’s not when the shit hits the fan.”
He then stood behind me, made me close my eyes, and started violently shaking me and shouting questions about what circuit breakers to pull, what procedures to implement in the event of an emergency. He was shouting like a drill instructor. The thing he shouted the most as he concluded his lesson? “OODA!! OODA!! OODA will save your life!”
This created quite a spectacle for the other people quietly waiting for their physical exams.
What is OODA? OODA was originated as a concept for fighter pilots in the Korean War, by Colonel John Boyd. He observed that decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. By processing this cycle more rapidly than an adversary, one can “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage.
As I was taught during my training, the “adversary” we often faced in the patrol squadron community was accident chains – i.e., the series of events that build on themselves leading to an accident. In this sense, OODA isn’t useful only as a strategic framework (though it is definitely that… more on OODA later). It has strong utility in an emergent crisis, even if the cycle is compressed to mere moments in time. We were taught that training was the key to ensure that the cycle could be effectively compressed. But our training scenarios almost always required a process based on OODA.
My instructor shouting “OODA!!” at me was one of my most memorable lessons from my training. And I was definitely thinking about it that day on our SAR mission.
Back over the North Atlantic: when we lost the #2 engine on the port wing in the midst of our left turn, the aircraft made a sickening lurch towards the sea. The cockpit crew had to do a number of things immediately: most importantly, they had to fly the plane, ensuring that we didn’t fall below the power curve or fall below the minimum controllable airspeed given our loss of engine thrust. Our biggest risk in the moment was a stall – essentially, the aircraft falling out of the sky.
In our case, in addition to leveling the wings, the flight deck pushed the nose towards the crashing sea swells – the fastest way to keep our speed from bleeding off and avoiding a stall scenario. Incidentally, dropping the nose of a plane towards the earth’s surface is a very unnatural thing to do. There is a human reaction to pull back on the yoke or stick in an emergency, especially when close to the ground. Pilots are trained against this, but the phenomenon has caused more than a few fatal accidents.
The flight deck crew also had to manage power on the two good engines as well as make the correct flight control inputs to manage the asymmetric thrust (engines operating on one side of the aircraft but not on the other). They also had to restart #1 while more or less simultaneously securing #2.
And this all had to be done in mere seconds … the sea is awfully close and the room for recovery is very narrow at 500 feet.
It was a lot to manage, but they did it. There are a few examples of P-3 crews that have not fared as well. In one case, a P-3 had their #1 engine shut down during a training flight when their #2 engine began vibrating intensely and had to be “bagged” immediately. Unfortunately, with two engines off on the same side and with the airspeed too low, the aircraft stalled … at least 5 G’s were reported in the subsequent effort to recover, yielding substantial damage to the aircraft. The plane did five spin rotations from 5,500 feet, before recovering at an altitude of less than 200 feet.
Recovering our aircraft after the failure of engine #2 was the first OODA Loop that day, but certainly not the only one. It was a tightly compressed OODA Loop, with the entire decision-to-action process occurring in seconds. The quick reactions and deep experience of the flight crew saved the plane as we bottomed out maybe 150 feet above the swells.
But that was just the beginning of our problems…
Don Mathis is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kinetic Social, a company launched in 2011 with a core focus of marrying “Big Data” to social media on behalf of large brand advertisers. He also serves in the active reserve of the US Navy, where he is the Commanding Officer of a highly deployable, selectively staffed, joint-service combat logistics unit that supports forward deployed war-fighters.