Learn from trauma

USNI News reports (click here) that my one-time professional home, the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, has created a simulation of last year’s USS Fitzgerald collision as a training aid for students. Students have the maneuvering data for Fitzgerald–position, course, speed, and so forth–as well as the relative positions, course, and speed data for contacts within the destroyer’s sensor range. Most strikingly, they also have audio recordings from the ship’s watch team, documenting in excruciating detail the sequence of events leading up to Fitzgerald‘s collision.

It must be a harrowing experience to relive what was by no means an unavoidable mishap.

The surface and submarine communities have a macabre advantage when disaster strikes. Disasters involving ships are big and traumatic, and they involve lots of mariners. Cataclysm concentrates minds. Airplane crashes tend to happen out of view and to involve small numbers of crewmen. Unless there’s a spate of accidents, or unless an individual accident is especially newsworthy–say, if the U.S. Navy Blue Angels lose a plane and aviator at an airshow–aviation disasters stay mainly out of public view. Naval aviation may not learn as much because the community is spared the public and congressional outcry.

In a very real sense, then, disaster confers opportunity. It compels us to amend how we think about our profession. It collapses resistance to necessary change. And, as the Fitzgerald simulation doubtless will, it makes an impression on veteran seafarers and newcomers to the profession. We collectively resolve to do better.

When I taught firefighting and damage control at SWOS, accordingly, we would open the first day of the course with a series of film clips from recent-ish naval disasters involving fire, flooding, exploding ordnance, or all of the above. We led off with the Forrestal fire (1967), moved on to the Exocet missile strikes on HMS Sheffield (1982) and USS Stark (1987), and finished with the mine hits on USS Samuel B. Roberts (1988), Princeton (1991), and Tripoli (also 1991). The “main-space fire” on board USS White Plains (1989) was also much on our minds in those days. Combine a leaking fuel pipe with hot machinery in the engineering plant and you have the potential for an inferno that devours sailors and materiel–as indeed befell White Plains.

In Common Sense Thomas Paine observed that crises have their uses. Indeed they do, and the surface-warfare community is wise to make use of its recent crises to revise its institutional practices and culture. Let’s shift our paradigm–and replace it with something healthier.