Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Liberty Ships and Spaceships: Surprising parallels

I've mentioned before that I collect lessons from the home-front industrial mobilization during World War II. When I describe some of these insights to audiences at my lectures many are amazed at the breakthroughs I describe, but some are skeptical than any case study dating to the "We can do it!" spirit of early 1940s retains relevance today, because Americans are split in so many directions there's no shared goal.

That's a tough challenge, but I'm as convinced as ever that some of those lessons have real value. Here's an example: Once people begin accepting the need to relocate cities and infrastructure away from rising seas, they might want to consider how in the heck the Soviets managed to pack up and move 1,532 factories out of the path of Nazi invasion in four months, via railroads that were already full of traffic. 

Here's another reminder that WW2's lessons in excellence have staying power: a news item about SpaceX's work on the Starship rocket, intended to serve as a medium-sized rocket on its own, and also as a second stage atop the Super Heavy booster. While SpaceX was building the Mk1 and Mk2 Starship models simultaneously earlier this year, the company set up a competition between the two crews, one at Boca Chica in Texas and the other at Cocoa, Florida. Each team at what's been called a shipyard for spaceships was obligated to share insights with the other, but was also free to come up with its own techniques. Said Elon Musk, "This will be a super-fun race to orbit, Moon and Mars!"  

The competition, perhaps coincidentally, echoes a motivational method called "athletic industrialism" used with great success at two Kaiser Shipyards in Oregon and California during the WW2 push for Liberty ships, the mass-produced 441-foot cargo carriers that did much to overwhelm the German Navy's attempt to starve Britain by cutting the Atlantic lifeline. 

A photo of Liberty ship John W. Brown at sea, carrying cargo and troops to Europe:

Here's a short film about Henry Kaiser and his amazing yards -- all the more amazing since Kaiser had never built any ships before he took up Liberty ships. 

I researched the subject for an article in Invention&Technology (linked below) and had the rare privilege of interviewing Kaiser's key man in the effort, Clay Bedford.

In 1939, when Congress first discussed a national goal of restarting American shipbuilding so it could hit a rate of launching one ship per week, that target looked impossible. 
(Hardly: By 1944 we were launching 41 ships every week.)

Skeptics had good reasons to say the 1939 goal would be out of reach. One was America's failed attempt to mass produce ships during World War I. While American shipbuilders commissioned for the Great War did begin work on a thousand ships during the war, less than ten of them were ready by the war’s end in November 1918. Back then, if a shipyard could start and finish a ship in nine months, that was considered very fast. 

During that war, workers had stitched ships together with thousands of rivets, each heated to red hot in a small portable furnace, flipped to a catcher, shoved into a hole, and hammered tight by two men with air hammers. Another limitation was the small size of the cranes available. It limited pre-assembled sections to a few tons each. It meant that nearly all the World War I labor had to happen at the shipway, inside the growing hull. Space was at a premium so this held up everything. World War I shipyards had had to cut and trim steel with huge steam-powered shears.

Kaiser’s methods broke through all these. Shipbuilders used oxyacetylene cutting torches, hydraulic presses, and arc welding machines that allowed them to shape and join plate steel as easily as a carpenter works with wood. Riveting was limited to joining the hull plates to the frame. While welding made a lighter ship, the weld had to be done right the first time, and this wasn’t easy. Arc welding was comparatively simple when done down hand: flat on a level surface, such as a deck. But it was difficult on a bulkhead and quite difficult for beads that had to be applied over one’s head.

The solution was to change the work. The Kaiser men packed up the huge cranes they had been using on Grand Coulee Dam to pour concrete, and shipped them to the yards. By late 1942 deckhouse - the three-story accommodation structures amidship - were being put together on a moving assembly line, supported on frameworks that doubled as jigs. Periodically cranes turned the pieces over to allow welders to continue their work downwind. The deckhouse was built in four pieces, hauled to within crane reach on huge trailers, and joined on the ship. The largest section, at seventy-two tons, still didn’t overburden the crane’s capacity because two cranes could share the load. The tangle of steam, water, and fuel piping in the engine room, previously a perennial chokepoint in the critical path, also surrendered to prefabrication. Workers erected the pipes in a mock engine room far from the shipyard, complete with a full-size wooden dummy of the engine. To make sure the engines would work before installation, they ran them with compressed air.

The Richmond complex hit an all-time peak with the Robert E. Peary, a ship it built and launched in just over four days, in November 1942. As with so many other achievements, the Peary had its roots in the brisk competition Kaiser fostered between worker groups. He knew that peer pressure between co-workers is more persuasive than “power pressure” from the front office. Back at Grand Coulee Dam his managers had divided the dam in half, entrusting each half to a different set of workers. A billboard, changed daily, reported on which half was winning. In September 1942 a similar competition started when the Kaiser shipyard in Portland, Oregon, set a record by launching a Liberty ship ten days after the keel had gone down. President Roosevelt came out to watch that one hit the water.

Many of the Oregon Shipbuilding employees were friends with Richmond shipworkers down south, and the chaffing started immediately through the mails: Why was Richmond being so slow? That fall Richmond shipyard boss Clay Bedford came across a prefabricated bulkhead in Richmond’s Yard No. 2 that didn’t belong there, and he hunted up the supervisor to ask about it. Bedford discovered that the workers had already started preparing to build a ship so fast that Oregon Shipbuilding would never beat that record. Bedford obtained the go-ahead to prepare for a record-breaking effort on Hull 440.

Workers contributed hundreds of suggestions to prepare for the job. More than half of the welding and riveting was finished before any pieces of the Peary started appearing on Shipway No. 1. The bow arrived on the shipway as two pieces; the stern, as three. Altogether the Peary arrived as 97 big chunks.

The clock started running just after midnight on a Sunday morning in November. Two hours later the ship’s bottom shell was done. By noon the engine was in place. After a day half the ship’s steel was attached. After two days the hull all the way up to the upper deck was done, and the engine was running. The superstructure went on during the third day, and the fourth day was spent on finishing up details like painting and wiring. To save time at the outfitting dock, the deckhouse went onto the ship complete with inkwells, coat hangers, electric clocks, mirrors, and life belts. At four days and fifteen hours, the ship slid down the launching ways.

The rush didn't stop once a tug moved the hull to the outfitting dock. The Peary raised steam and left for sea trials just three days later.

Though the “athletic industrialism” came out of schoolboy-like rivalry, there was nothing silly about the results. Even adding in extra time spent in making unusual preparations to break the record, building the Peary took thousands fewer man-hours than had previous Liberties.

Here's a link to my 1988 article on Liberty ships for Invention&Technology

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Sliced and Diced: Fate of the Golden Ray

Almost three months ago the Ro/Ro car carrier M/V Golden Ray started to capsize soon after leaving the port of Brunswick, GA, with more than four thousand cars on board. The NTSB report isn't out, but a cargo fire could have played a part, along with a negative metacentric height. aka top-heaviness.

The pilot quickly and correctly steered the troubled ship out of the main channel, so it wouldn't block port traffic. Rescue of four trapped crewmen through a hole cut in the side was next, followed by many weeks of draining the fuel and oil tanks.

That leaves the 656-foot ship and cargo. The Unified Command group directing work considered a wide range of salvage options, including parbuckling a la Costa Concordia. But parbuckling is very expensive and Golden Ray will be cut up in place and hauled off, a section at a time, like cutting through a porketta. The method is slow but sure, relying on a long steel cable that's passed under, around, and over the ship from the side. This cable is encrusted with carbide powder and passed through winches. Given enough time the gritty cable can saw through very thick sections, including the hull of the sunken Russian submarine Kursk. Here's info on that rather risky salvage work

Cargo? The cars are no longer where they were parked on the lower decks; they broke loose from their straps and slid to the low side when the ship heeled to almost degrees. Some are underwater; some caught fire. Cars in such a state can't be sold, so as with most car-carrier disasters they'll be plucked out and scrapped. (A surprisingly large number of car carriers have gone down, or gone over, in recent years; one common cause is fire that spreads through the cargo.)

Here's a video of Smit International carving up the wrecked Tricolor

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Ring, Ten Years On

It's been ten years since I took a single photo of what I call the Ring with a simple point-and-shoot digital camera. I blogged about it here, just before one of my appearances on Coast to Coast AM with Ian Punnett. The producer had to talk me into it because I'm not in the UFO club. But I was willing to hear facts, or grounded conjectures, that people had to pass along. And still am!

I was taking a photo of the contrail and didn't notice the Ring until months later, when flipping through the photos. Here's a wider view, then a cropped shot, enhanced with some contrast:

I took a string of photos over a fifteen minute span, but the Ring only showed up in one photo.

The post brought in a wide range of comments after the broadcast, with the skeptics weighing in first, saying that it was a lens flare, or a problem with the camera's JPEG processing, or a reflection onto a high, thin cloud layer.

The anvil chorus was followed by several commenters who said they'd seen similar things, some calling it a ring of plasma. The blue arc, just below the Ring, looks like it could be a shock wave from something climbing at supersonic speed. But no object is visible.

Ten years on, I haven't heard a credible conventional explanation. The least likely is lens flare, because I hadn't been pointing the camera anywhere near the direction of the Sun, given that I was aiming north and at this time of day, in Minnesota in May, the Sun was at least thirty degrees away.

While bright out-of-frame lights can cause a lens effect, typically it throws a haze over the image rather than creating a mysterious, single object. 

JPEG can cause compression artifacts but I never saw any other odd object from this camera, and I'd run thousands of photos through it. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Tales of the Chopper: Firefight at Vinh Long, Easter Sunday, 1967 (Part 2)

Continuing this reposting of a feature I wrote for Air&Space, published last December. It illustrates the risk and potential of battlefield helicopter rescue.

My previous post (Part 1) narrated how a seemingly routine catch-and-kill operation in the Mekong Delta turned into a protracted gun battle between ARVN troops, American aircraft, and a Vietcong main force battalion equipped with heavy weapons, in particular the formidable .50-caliber machine gun. Head-to-head battles of this size, out in the open and lasting all day, were rare during the Vietnam War. 

At this point, three Huey helicopters have crashed, and the commander of the American forces has died during an attempted rescue. Dozens of American and South Vietnamese troops are unable to move to safety, and one, pilot Jon Myhre, has gone missing. Plans for a rescue haven't yet firmed up, but in the meantime, aircraft have the job of keeping the Vietcong from overrunning the survivors. 


Aircraft arrived, lots of them, from airfields all across the Delta and as far away as the base at Cam Ranh Bay, 700 miles to the north. Bombers and Skyraiders took turns pummeling the tree lines on the north and east. Dozens of Huey gunships formed a “daisy chain,” like stock cars along an aerial racetrack. One leg of this pattern passed over the Vietcong-held tree lines. As each gunship exhausted its rocket pods, grenades, and ammunition cases, it left the formation and headed to base for more ammunition.

At the Vinh Long airfield, the time to re-arm a gunship dropped from the normal 30 minutes to 10, says Terry McDowell, who managed the reloading. “Most of the personnel on the base showed up at the flight line, so we put them to work.” Pilots refused to give way to others who were off-duty for the day. Gunships were so overloaded that gunners ran alongside as the B-model Hueys scraped along the runway, gaining enough translational lift to claw into the air.

Still the Vietcong gunners were firing—from slits in log bunkers concealed among the dike lines. Snipers were picking off men who showed their heads above the vegetation. Mindful of the opposition, slicks dropped ARVN reinforcements out of rifle range, on the opposite side of a tree line lying a half-mile northwest. Adviser Rex Latham went in search of his senior officer, Tom Mitchell, not knowing his fate. Latham found that he could make his way into the combat zone by staying low and timing his movements with the aircraft attacks, when the Vietcong ducked for cover. Finding Mitchell dead, Latham took his radio and began organizing the remnants of the first lift, grouping the wounded for rescue.

Awaiting the arrival of more troops to take up flanking positions on the east, the new ARVN forces held their advance, still facing heavy fire. Vietcong spotters were using whistle signals effectively: calling the men to take cover when gunships were in sight, then summoning them into action once the airplanes had passed.

As it appeared that the ARVN airlift would not be able to handle the situation, word came that the tracked vehicles in the ARVN’s armored column were stuck in soft ground near the Mang Thit Canal; they wouldn’t arrive before nightfall.

Commanders turned to the third option: a large-scale helicopter rescue. There were too many wounded Americans and ARVNs to fit on a single Dustoff, so three additional crews volunteered to follow it down. One was a slick commanded by Warrant Officer Dave Eastman. Eastman had spent the morning flying commanders back and forth and was eager to help. A second was the unit’s repair helicopter, the Road Runner. Mike Hershey, pilot of the smoke ship that was knocked out of action early in the battle, jumped on as Road Runner copilot. The fourth was commanded by Jüri Toomepuu, a fervently anti-communist immigrant from Estonia who had fought in Korea as an enlisted man.

A fifth helo would be critical to the plan: Viking Surprise, a D-model Huey out of Soc Trang and the only other smoke ship available for combat that day. That ship’s commander was a spectacle-wearing pilot named Jerry Daly.

“I was eating breakfast at Soc Trang, in the Officers’ Club, when the call came,” recalls Daly, today a Catholic priest. He was unable to attend the weekend reunion and shares his memories by phone. “Viking Surprise was the only other smoke ship available in all the Delta,” he says. His crew brought along something that would be good for morale, if not enough for survival: a .50-caliber Browning heavy machine gun, which they aimed out a side door. The Huey’s light frame couldn’t handle the recoil from such a gun if hard-mounted, so Viking’s crew dragged in a mattress and laid it on that.

Given the toll so far in men and machines, Daly’s assignment had the look of a suicide mission. Smoke ships have to fly low and slow, directly in front of enemy positions. If the wind speed was low, Viking Surprise might have to make only two death-defying passes in front of the enemy’s massed fire. Instead, the breeze that morning was too strong for the smoke to hang in place, so Viking Surprise passed again and again, rebuilding the screen.

“After we made six, seven or eight passes we ran out of juice, so we kept going around, shooting the .50,” Daly says. “That was until all the ships got out. That took longer than you might think.”

“I can assure you I’ve never seen anybody fly a helicopter like that before,” Myhre says today.

On the ground, the rescuers were finding it hard to round up their fellow Americans. Pilots Eastman and Toomepuu jumped out to speed the loading.

Joe Watson had been sheltering behind the paddy dike. “I was so stuck in the mud I couldn’t get myself free,” says Watson. “It took two men to pull me out.” No one saw or heard Myhre on the far side of the combat zone, lying wounded in the grass.

The first three ships lifted off with their loads, but the fourth ship, the Dustoff, was too heavy with passengers, which included some ARVN troops. Twice the helicopter failed to gain enough altitude to get over the knee-high dikes. Once the pilot perched his ship on a dike, balanced on one skid. Finally enough men got out to lighten the ship, enabling a getaway.

The most surprising event in the third rescue attempt was, appropriately, the return to base of Viking Surprise. The Vietcong had many opportunities to shoot it down, yet the smoke ship made it back to the airstrip at Vinh Long—barely. Immediately declared unflyable, Viking Surprise was shipped back to the States to be rebuilt. The smoke ship’s five-man crew escaped with only one injury between them, a flesh wound sustained by copilot Larry McDonald from a stray bullet fragment. I ask Jerry Daly how many new bullet holes his ship sported upon landing. He doubts that the count was as high as legend has it—130—“but it was certainly over 50.”

In the noise and confusion of the four-ship rescue mission, and given that many of the survivors were covered in gray paddy mud, nobody knew the results until a headcount at the Vinh Long airfield. One American remained unaccounted for: Jon Myhre. Outlaws knew he had been gravely wounded during and after the crash of Outlaw 17, and nobody had seen him since the Dustoff crash. His wife Ginny got the call: Jon was missing in action and likely dead.

While Dempsey’s death on Delta Six was shocking, the loss of Myhre hit the Outlaw crews particularly hard. Dempsey lived and worked out of headquarters in Can Tho, so the men of the Outlaw platoons rarely saw him in person, but Myhre and his guitar were familiar to all the men at Vinh Long. 

Front gate at the airfield:

Back at the battlefield, the guitarist was still alive and learning about “danger close” bombing. Friendly airplanes were flinging bombs as large as 500 pounds over his head to support the eventual advance of ARVN troops on Hoa Binh. When the warheads exploded among the palms, the blasts heaved the soft ground “like a swell in the ocean,” he says, and rained hot shrapnel on his back. The explosions left him deaf for a half an hour at a time, and as his hearing returned, more explosions restored the ringing in his ears.

Myhre’s fate rested entirely on whether the ARVN ground troops led by Lieutenant Rex Latham, reached him before the Vietcong. Latham worked directly with company commanders at the landing zone after his ARVN counterpart deserted the battlefield. “Most of the day was an intense blur that I do not remember clearly,” he says. “I was running on adrenaline, was scared, hungry, thirsty, tired, and filled with a cold anger.”

At the reunion, Latham stands out. While many of the attendees might have to struggle to don their uniforms from 1967, Latham, trim with a military bearing, would have no trouble. One of his contributions to the evening program is narrating a slideshow about a return to the battlefield at the 40-year anniversary. On that trip, he says, he talked with a former Vietcong officer. “In 1967, we would have shot each other without a second thought,” Latham tells his fellow veterans and their families, “but in 2007 we talked as old soldiers, just on opposite sides.”

Remembering 1967, Latham says that he didn’t know going in what he and the ARVNs he was advising were up against: elements of two veteran Vietcong battalions, dug in and well-equipped.

The men I spoke to at the reunion were proud that though outnumbered by enemy forces, they had acquitted themselves with honor.

Late that afternoon, as ARVN troops began creeping up on the Vietcong positions, Myhre saw a form approaching and figured it was a Vietcong soldier coming to check bodies for booty. Unarmed, Myhre played dead and prepared to attack. As the stranger picked up Myhre’s arm to pull off his wristwatch, Myhre grabbed the man’s shirt collar, intending to drag him down and kill him with a bite to the jugular until he recognized the ARVN uniform. As Myhre released his grip and reached out to shake his hand, the soldier fell dead from a sniper bullet and tumbled onto his weapon, an M-1 .30-caliber carbine. Myhre guessed the same sniper who had been hounding him all day had killed his rescuer.

Myhre, knowing that the Vietcong would turn more aggressive as night fell, coveted the M-1 rifle. He tugged it from under the soldier’s body and readied it for action.

Before midnight, Latham heard from an ARVN scout that someone who could be American was moving in front of them. Calling out in Vietnamese, Latham approached, found Myhre, and inspected his wounds by flashlight.

Latham passed the news by radio to his commander, Major Andrew Palenchar, and they discussed whether Myhre could live until a daytime rescue. Another voice broke into the frequency: It came from the cockpit of a Spooky gunship orbiting above, which by coincidence had a doctor on board. The doctor’s assessment: Myhre would be dead by morning. A command helicopter passing nearby, on the way to headquarters at Can Tho, overheard the transmissions and agreed to try a risky nighttime landing but aborted after receiving Vietcong fire.

The commander’s gunship escort, Lancer Two of the 114th Assault Helicopter Company, volunteered to make the next attempt. Following Latham’s flashlight signals, copilot Captain Frank Sasaki guided the ship to a low hover touching the paddy’s muddy water. Using a stretcher improvised from rifles and ponchos, Latham and enlisted men lugged Myhre 100 feet to Lancer Two and heaved him in. Myhre rode to Vinh Long atop a lumpy layer of ammo cases.

The word spread through the hooches of Outlaws and Mavericks: Fittingly, it was predawn after Easter Sunday and Jon Myhre was back from the dead.

As the reunion was winding down on Saturday night, Joe Watson, a door gunner on Myhre’s Huey, shared thoughts of their long, uncelebrated journey back from Vietnam. Myhre recalled that his welcome was little more than being trundled out of an ambulance onto the loading dock at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

During the slideshow of the pilgrimage to the battlefield that some of the veterans had made on the 40th anniversary of the battle, Latham showed a photograph of a large monument the Vietnamese government had erected. On one side of the monument, artwork depicts three helicopters going down in flames. At the base of monument, six Americans are smiling at the camera, happy, we can assume, that so many men made it out of that hellish place alive.

After a stay at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Myhre worked as a military courier until cleared to resume flying. He declined a return to helicopters in favor of fixed-wing aircraft. He retired from the Army in 1981. Myhre lived another 51 years after the Battle of Easter Sunday and passed away on October 6, 2018.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Tales of the Chopper: Firefight at Vinh Long on Easter Sunday, 1967 (Part 1)

Posting this from an article I wrote for Air&Space, available here, which has photographs taken by the men on the scene. I heard about this thanks to a chain of connections that started with Harrison Ford. When I interviewed Ford about his experience with personal helicopters for my book The God Machine, I wrote down the name of his helicopter instructor at Bell, Wayne Brown. Wayne had been a trainer of Vietnam-era pilots, and he went on to introduce me to more top-rated pilots. One was test pilot Dwayne Williams. Dwayne was a gunship pilot in the battle, and invited me to the reunion marking the 50th anniversary of the event.


It’s a Saturday night at a former Army-base auditorium in Mineral Wells, Texas, where two dozen men aged 70 and upward have stood to join in a song first performed in 1965. The chorus emerges with particular energy, as they sing the words Eric Burdon and the Animals sang that year: We gotta get out of this place / If it’s the last thing we ever do.

They don’t mean this place; they’re happy to be here. This is a reunion of the 175th Assault Helicopter Company, Vietnam edition. Over half of them are pilots, which means they started their Army rotorcraft training in the dry hills and fields around the town’s Army Aviation facility, Fort Wolters.

The “place” they’re thinking of tonight is a paddy in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and this second night of their reunion is precisely 50 years after an unusually protracted daytime fight broke out there. It began with a platoon of Army helicopters landing among two well-hidden, well-armed battalions of Vietcong soldiers. In the many hours of fighting that followed, four helicopter rescues were attempted. Half a million machine-gun rounds were expended, along with hundreds of bombs. More than 200 men died, most of them Vietcong. But the Vietcong shot down three helicopters and sent more to heavy repairs.

For all the carnage, the fight rates only a few lines in the war’s reference books. If mentioned at all, it’s as part of Operation Long Phi 999G. But to these men it will always be the Battle of Easter Sunday.

Several of the men wounded that day haven’t seen each other since what one of them calls the “day of the guns.” Fifty years ago. Why so long?

A variety of veterans groups like the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association help organize regional and unit gatherings, but a battle reunion is harder to muster. Battles cross multiple commands, from medical evacuation to gunship escorts to troop carriers to American military advisers. And for some, the memory is still too fresh.
“Some of the guys have had trouble dealing with the memories,” says gunship pilot Dwayne “Willie” Williams. “This kind of combat, there’s nothing else that can relate to it.”

In the parking lot outside the rec hall, two Huey helicopters rest on trailers. They are also veterans, their service attested to by patched bullet holes. One is a troop-carrying “slick” and the other a gunship. The latter bristles with simulated rocket pods, garlands of grenades, belted ammunition, and machine guns.

That’s the big stuff. Inside the building, dozens of display boards exhibit assault rifles, knives, banana clips, rocket-propelled grenades, helmets, badges, battle flags, and clothing. One board is devoted to business cards from nightspots like the Princess Bar, 140 Tu Do Street of Saigon, featuring Attractive English Speaking Hostesses and Cold Drink at Moderate Prices. The displays trigger conversations in this crowd of vets and family members. Many of the boards feature American and “Commie” gear hanging side by side. “All this VC gear makes me scared to come in here at night,” jokes Ron Petty, who in 1967 was a warrant officer pilot. Here's one of the display boards:

“What struck me that day,” door gunner Joe Watson tells me at one of the banquet tables, “was how first one helicopter got in trouble, then two, then three—and then you’ve got bombers and jets and it kept on going all day long.” After a bit, Watson asks if I’ve seen a fellow named Jon Myhre at the reunion yet. Myhre had been the commander on Watson’s helicopter, and he hadn’t seen Myhre since they parted ways on that battlefield so long ago.

He’s referring to Warrant Officer Jon Myhre, a soft-spoken man with the demeanor of a retired Sunday school teacher. During the battle, Myhre was shot down twice, then burned in a fire. That was just the start of what would be one man’s very long day.

The 175th and another assault helicopter company, the 114th, were based at a French-built facility dating to 1937 at the riverside city of Vinh Long. The base was in a steamy, swampy area of the Mekong Delta, southwest of Saigon. “It was a lot better than the typical tents and airfields,” said Terry McDowell, Myhre’s roommate at the base. “It had semi-permanent structures, which gave us a heightened sense of security from the infrequent mortar attacks.” And unlike most Vietnam billets, it had unlimited hot water.

Along with two other companies based about 60 miles south, at Soc Trang, the assault companies at Vinh Long fell under the command of the 13th Combat Aviation Battalion. Helicopter crews knew it as Delta Battalion, the Shield of the Mekong. The 175th fielded two platoons of UH-1 Huey D-model transports, the slicks, and one platoon of older Huey B-model gunships. The company’s slick platoons called themselves Outlaws; the gunships’ call sign was Maverick. Here's the Huey gunship displayed at the reunion:

In 1967, Easter Sunday fell early on the calendar: March 26. No major operations were scheduled, so the duty roster was short and Myhre, aircraft commander of the Huey transport Outlaw 17, planned to sleep late that morning. The coming week looked to be a good one, by Vietnam standards. In just two days, Myhre would be in Hawaii, where he’d meet his wife and infant daughter. Many pilots serving in Vietnam at the time were new to the uniform, but Myhre had enlisted six years earlier as a Marine, later winning permission to train for the Army’s helicopter wing.

He awoke that morning to hear that a full airlift had been ordered, and he was due on the flight line. A battalion of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops and their advisers were on their way by truck to Vinh Long. Once they arrived, the Outlaws of the 175th would load them aboard 10 Hueys and fly them to a spot near Hoa Binh, a village in the Delta, where they were to intercept a Vietcong force. Moving the full battalion—about 200 men—would take two round trips, or “lifts.” Gunship escort would come from a different company, the Thunderbirds.

Crews called such orders “hurry-up missions”—not quite routine but certainly within their quick-response capability. The main job of U.S. Army Aviation helicopter companies in the Mekong Delta in 1967 was the protection and transport of ARVN troops. Despite what is portrayed in American-made movies about the Vietnam War, in which GI’s travel by chopper to walk into firefights and booby traps, at this time and place, ARVNs and a handful of American military advisers did most of the footwork around the Delta, hunting Vietcong soldiers allied with the communist forces of North Vietnam. Battles could be nightmarish. The Vietcong had been fighting foreigners for decades—Japanese, French, and now Americans—and had adapted to each adversary’s weapons and tactics, though at a heavy cost in lives.

If and when the ARVN troops succeeded in pinning down the elusive enemy, they could call in artillery fire, fighter-bombers, helicopter gunships, and Spooky, a Gatling-gun-equipped AC-47 that appeared by night, hurling fiery streams of projectiles at the enemy. But the ARVN had to find them first—before the Vietcong struck.

This particular operation was intended to set the ARVNs down where they could catch a Vietcong force making for the village of Hoa Binh, a long, narrow community between two small waterways that fed into the Mang Thit Canal. The Mang Thit was fringed by trees that offered cover to enemy gunners, so it was vital to catch the Vietcong before they reached shelter.

By 7 a.m., the crews at Vinh Long were starting the turbines for the short hop from revetments to the airstrip, where the ARVN would climb aboard. Because Myhre reached the operations hooch after everybody else, they had run out of the compact medical kit and emergency radio ordinarily issued to pilots, and he climbed aboard Outlaw 17 without either one. His copilot that day was Jim Martinson. “This was Jim’s first combat assault,” Myhre recalls. “I said, ‘It’ll be a piece of cake. I’ve done this hundreds of times.’ ”

“Thirty seconds is all it takes to land troops,” says Dwayne Williams, “if nobody is shot down.”

Such speed was possible because the transports would be arranged in a formation that allowed them to touch down simultaneously. That day—clear, with just a touch of haze—there would be two five-ship “V” formations, Gold in the lead “V,” followed by White. The ship piloted by Myhre and Martinson would be White Four, slotted into the rearmost, right-hand position.

Now packed with 10 or more soldiers apiece, the Outlaw helicopters lifted from the airstrip at Vinh Long and flew southeast to an aerial staging area, where a pair of Thunderbird gunships waited to guide them to the landing zone, or LZ.

High above the LZ, four more helicopters orbited. One had the radio call sign Delta Six, “six” designating a commander. It was flown by Colonel Jack Dempsey, head of the Delta Battalion. Dempsey hadn’t equipped himself with a flak jacket, not expecting to get within rifle range of the landing zone. Another was Outlaw Six, the ship carrying Major Bill Meehan, commander of the transports. A third Huey had the call sign Dustoff, a medevac helicopter from the 82nd Medical Detachment. A fourth was the flying repair shop from Vinh Long dubbed Roadrunner.
Pilots recall an unsettling change in plans at this time. Though the gunships had marked the original landing zone with smoke, the lead transport pilot received orders to overfly it and land almost a mile further east. The orders worried Outlaw commander Meehan, because the new LZ would put the transports closer to an area not yet reconnoitered.

“That LZ was put right next to where the VC were having their breakfast,” says Dwayne Williams.

After two Skyraiders dropped one ton of bombs on a tree line near the new LZ, gunships of the Thunderbird company flew low in front of the trees, figuring that any lurking enemy would start shooting. Nothing. So, escorted by two more Thunderbirds, the 10 loaded Huey transports approached, heading due east. Shortly before the touchdown, a “smoke ship”—a Huey equipped with a tank and pipes that injected oil into the turbine exhaust—started to lay down a smoke screen.

As soon as the transports fluttered to a landing, the gunfire commenced. One of the first hit was the smoke ship. Its smoke equipment disabled, it gave up on laying down the screen and departed.

Traveling by boats on the feeder canals in order to hasten their retreat from the north, the Vietcong had beaten the helicopters to the LZ. Hoa Binh wasn’t just a waypoint along an escape route. It turned out to be the destination, a strongpoint crammed with bunkers, tunnels, observation posts, spider holes, and machine-gun nests. The VC had connected these installations with miles of field-telephone wire. In addition to the usual AK-47 assault weapons, the strongpoint defenders had hard-hitting BAR automatic and sniper rifles, B-40 grenade launchers, and at least two .50-caliber machine guns in well-concealed positions.

As the 200 ARVN troops and their two American advisers spilled out of the helicopters, the Vietcong mowed them down. The copilot in Outlaw 29, 19-year-old Vance Shearer, took a round to the helmet that knocked him out. He slumped across the controls, almost flipping the ship before the aircraft commander, Tom McCarthy, got control. Gunner Gary Wilcox was shot in the forehead; after a few hours, he died. Bill Meehan called down from Outlaw Six: “Outlaws, get out of there!”

At the rear of the second formation, Outlaw 17’s engine quit and the controls froze. Large-caliber bullets punched holes in the windscreen. “I remember what Jim’s face looked like when it was hit,” Myhre says. “There was blood all over. Then, the next instant, it was like I’d been hit with a baseball bat. My leg flew over the instrument panel—I hit Jim in the head with it.” The impact shattered several inches of Myhre’s right femur. Outlaw 17 settled into the mud, upright—and alone. The other helicopters had all managed to lift off, and the Vietcong gunners gave 17 their full attention. A B-40 rocket opened a hole in the side.

“Think of one duck on a pond with dozens of hunters,” says Jim Martinson.

As the first distress calls went out, Major Jim Eberwine, commander of the Dustoff, was already on the way down. Relying on gunship escorts to shoot up the tree lines and throw off the Vietcong aim, he started a descent so steep and fast that Myhre’s Huey had barely settled after the crash before the first rescue attempt began.

“I heard a helicopter approach, 50 feet over our heads, and it was spraying gas all over from the hits,” Myhre recalls. “Now all the tracers were aimed at the Dustoff, not us. He set down tail to enemy, 75 feet away. Joe [Watson, 17’s gunner] grabbed me by the collar, saying we need to get in there. Then both of us were hit. It flipped me in the air. But Joe never let go.” Now Myhre had a second wound, this time in the back. The bullet stopped a fraction of an inch from his spine.

Seeing the Outlaw crew’s painful progress, crew chief Mike Kelley and medic Bill Hook jumped out to help. A VC gunner drew a bead on Dustoff co-?pilot Charlie Jordan, but a chest protector relocated behind his head blocked three well-placed bullets.

While helping the Outlaw survivors, Kelley was shot. He made it back to the helicopter but died before he could board. Among the enlisted men, Kelley had stood out: An all-state football player in high school, he had turned down a generous college scholarship package to enlist. Now he lay dead in a rice paddy.

As Eberwine pulled the Dustoff’s collective lever up, preparing to fly forward to gain speed and altitude, a bullet crashed through the chin bubble and hurled his left leg onto the right torque pedal, putting the ship into a tight turn. “You’ve got it,” Eberwine yelled to his copilot, Charlie Jordan, but before Jordan could counter the turn, a skid caught the ground and the helicopter rolled onto its side, flinging chunks of rotor blade. Fuel spilled and ignited.

It was Myhre’s second crash of the morning. The rollover left him dazed at what was now the underside of the helicopter, his arm pinned between the paddy mud and the half-sunken door frame. “After it crashed, I was unconscious,” Myhre says. “My right arm was pinned and I didn’t know where the hell I was. Then somebody yelled ‘fire,’ and that took about a millisecond to register. I looked straight up the deck, knew I had to get out, and started digging to get my arm free.”

Joe Watson and the other survivors of the crash were already out and trying to find cover behind the low paddy dikes. Army Captain Tom Mitchell, one of the American advisers to the ARVN troops being transported, came up to assist the medic, Hook. Now Mitchell dropped, mortally wounded from a gunshot. He had been a vital player in getting the situation under control, and his loss almost doomed the Army airmen.

His arm freed, Myhre crawled up the seat backs of the Dustoff, dragging his useless leg. He tumbled out the high side and landed in the mud. A pool of spilled fuel had caught fire and in navigating the Huey’s interior, Myhre’s leather flying gloves were burned off, leaving only rings of leather around his wrists.

Alone now, he crawled a few dozen yards from the wreck then stopped, utterly spent, lying flat among the rice plants for cover. He had managed to make himself less of a target for the Vietcong, but he was also without a weapon, a medical kit, or an emergency radio handset.

“I screamed out for my crew and those on the Dustoff, but no word came back,” Myhre says. “So I assumed everybody was dead, and I’ve got to survive.”

He decided that sitting up to look around was not an option. Every time he showed a hand or head, he attracted rifle rounds from the tree line. “I waited another 15 to 30 minutes, then tried again, then pop-pop-pop,” he says. “The SOB did that all day long. I had a choice to let my leg bleed or get shot trying to stop it. So I opted to let it bleed.” In a rare bit of luck for such a grievous wound, the bullet missed the artery, and the swelling kept the bleeding down. That kept him alive.

A half-mile overhead, Colonel Jack Dempsey in Delta Six, also chief pilot of his command and control helicopter, called on the radio that he would go in for a rescue. Bill Meehan and other pilots tried to talk Dempsey out of the attempt, saying the LZ was too hot. Dempsey only agreed to wait for an incoming pair of F-100 fighter-bombers.

Dempsey’s copilot was Outlaw company’s operations officer, Don Casper, who had come along for what had looked like a routine mission that would allow him to tally some of the flying hours required of officer-pilots. Dempsey dropped closer to the action so he could add suppressive fire from his door guns. Manning the M-60 machine gun at the left door, crew chief Bill Rhodes cradled his belt-fed weapon rather than relying on a door mount or a bungee cord. Rhodes shot at the tree line as the helicopter banked on each pass, even to the point of firing under the Huey’s tail boom.

“Delta Six was adamant he was going to go in,” remembers Dwayne Williams, one of the gunship pilots who followed Dempsey in. “The fire got intense and Dempsey’s call came, ‘I’m hit, I’m going down.’ ”

Rhodes says: “At 250 feet off the ground, all hell broke loose.” Today, Rhodes is a lanky, white-bearded businessman, willing to recount each minute as he saw it. His journey to the reunion was an improbable one. He heard about the event from a customer who came to his northern California sawmill for lumber and in passing mentioned a compilation of battlefield interviews assembled by Jon Myhre.

“I could hear the noise even with my helmet on, the sound of tic tic tic as the bullets hit the aircraft,” says Rhodes. “Then at five feet off the ground, bullets came through the glass while I was watching that side. Dempsey arched up and fell forward.”

Jim Martinson was lying below close to death when Delta Six hit the ground in a spray of mud and water. Now a third helicopter was down in the paddy.

Dempsey’s side gunner Jerry Ross, and later Bill Rhodes and Don Casper, were working to get Dempsey loose from the wreckage when he died. This wasn’t supposed to happen: Dempsey was a combat veteran of World War II and Korea, unstoppable, an O-6, just one step short of brigadier general.

Rhodes applied a tourniquet to Casper, who was losing blood from two arm wounds. Casper also had a bullet in his belly and a chest wound. Most of the survivors from Delta Six’s crash (copilot Casper, crew chief Rhodes, gunner Ross, along with Jim Martinson, Joe Watson, and Mike Kidd from Outlaw 17) found cover on one side of Delta’s wreck, leaving Jon Myhre on the other side. None of them saw Myhre again on the battlefield. Rhodes crawled to an ARVN squad and administered first aid to two soldiers with shrapnel wounds from bombs that had been dropped by F-100s in an attempt to push back the Vietcong.

Bill Meehan in Outlaw Six was in command of the scene now, and he ordered a halt to any more spontaneous rescues. The plan now was simply to hold back the enemy until a full rescue effort could be organized.

At this point, officers on the ground and in the air knew little except that the standard cordon-and-sweep tactic had blundered into a lethal trap. Three helicopters crews had crashed under fire, and crewmen were awaiting rescue. Plus, another crew had crash-landed on the way back to base. Several more ships had taken heavy fire from the tree line. Dozens of ARVN troops, perhaps half of all who landed in the first assault, were injured or dead.

This would be no ordinary rescue mission, so commanders weighed three options.

One was reinforcement by land from the northwest, relying on a column of ARVN armored cavalry with weapons heavier than anything the trapped troops had, but these would have to cross the Mang Thit Canal and slog through low and flooded land. Another was heliborne delivery of ARVN reinforcements to locations far enough from the battlefield to be safe. If these two didn’t bear fruit by mid-afternoon, a third option was a coordinated multi-helicopter rescue, with lots of fire support that would plummet into the middle of the fight. Whatever the means, it had to succeed before dark, when the Vietcong would control the area. This gave them about six hours.

(to be continued)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Goals, Fears, and Peers: Reflections on Admiral Hyman Rickover

This oped of mine first appeared in the National Board Bulletin, here.


Alongside a dock in Groton, Connecticut, is a floating museum piece: Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. It entered service more than a half century ago. Are there any useful lessons from something so far back into the Eisenhower era?

Visitors passing through the galley will see, prominently displayed, a list of the “Ten Commandments of Damage Control.” These are principles such as keeping cool and doing one’s duty in an emergency.

The quarters are tight, but there’s space for at least ten more commandments about how to avoid catastrophic accidents from high-energy technology. Here’s one I’d recommend for that list of bonus commandments: “Have a written, legal form that the inspector signs at the bottom: I hereby certify by my signature that I have actually observed or performed the step that I have checked off or initialed.”

That commandment is from The Man himself, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the man the nation knew as the Father of the Nuclear Navy. 

Across the entire history of technology, Rickover set the standard for quality: not just for equipment but for people. Who else could have climbed out from a dead-end postwar job, to marshal the power, money, and talent to create a nuclear powered submarine in six years? And more than that: to create a durable, quality-driven organization that persists long after his retirement. Naval Reactors has built more than 200 power plants and operated them with zero meltdowns: no small achievement considering the ugly string of meltdowns and lesser radiation incidents in the Russian Navy.

In every talk I’ve given about my book Inviting Disaster since 2001, I’ve closed with a reference to Rickover and what he called the “Discipline of Technology.” Over those years, dozens of veterans have come up to share stories about their interviews with Rickover. In his 63 years of active service in the Navy (a record), Rickover interviewed more than 5,000 midshipmen for officer positions.

Those brief encounters were famous for the tricks he used to throw job applicants off their game: like the slippery, off-kilter chair for candidates, and the broom closet to which he banished middies he felt weren’t responsive enough to his barked and often unfair questions. Drawn from Ted Rockwell’s study of Naval Reactors, Rickover once explained it to an associate this way: “What I'm trying to find out is how they will behave under pressure. Will they lie, or bluff, or panic, or wilt? Or will they continue to function with some modicum of competence and integrity? I can't find that out with routine questions. I've only got a few minutes with each one, half an hour at most. I've got to shake 'em up.”

While stressing out the candidates was clearly part of his method, there was more at work. Recently I took a new look at submariners’ recollections about their “Rakeover” ordeals. He looked for what might be called breadth and depth of character. He favored those who had made their way in the world without family wealth or political connections. He favored those who won their grades at the US Naval Academy through persistence and hard work, rather than breezing through on natural talent. Having arrived as a young immigrant from Poland, and having spent his adolescence in near-poverty, he knew nothing but hard work.

Rickover didn’t ignore paper achievements. Before each interview he had a full folder showing the candidate’s class rank, grades by major and minor, and the results of screening interviews. In today’s human resources lexicon, that manila folder captured a good picture of what today we call the applicant’s KSA– his knowledge, skills, and abilities. Such info can be scored and weighted quickly by HR people or their trusty computers, and that’s important now that so many jobs need to be filled, and any one jobseeker can post hundreds of applications via the internet.

So it’s not that Rickover was oblivious to the importance of “KSA” strengths. Rather, he was adding another letter to that acronym: “I” for inclination.

Admittedly, inclination can be a hard thing to detect. But it’s worth the effort when people in leadership positions have the power to make catastrophic mistakes. Rickover wanted to know, for example, if a stressed applicant was going to blame others for his own shortcomings.

I believe that three questions, drawn from the content of quality-driven leaders like Rickover, can shine light into an applicant’s inclinations:

What are your goals, and what are you doing to get there?
What do you fear the most? In other words, what risks do you avoid?
Who are your peers, the people whose opinion you value?

Goals, fears, and peers are best indicated by actions and choices, not words. People in public view often claim to value a set of high-minded goals, while pursuing a very different set of selfish goals.

To get at peer connections, we have to go beyond the résumé listing of membership and professional groups. Is the applicant most drawn to like-minded people, or to those who challenge his opinions with critical thinking and skeptical questions?

Rickover’s early years in Naval Reactors show how a look at goals, fears, and peers can reveal inclination.

Rickover’s goal, which certainly seemed like a long shot in 1947, when his office was a remodeled bathroom and he lacked any staff or a budget, was to build a highly compact, safe, and efficient reactor for submarines. He’d served on diesel-electric subs during World War II and came away convinced that such boats, slow and short of range when submerged, couldn't survive anti-submarine attacks.

But just how much did he value success in hitting the nuclear power goal? What risks would he undertake on behalf of the program? That’s where a look at the fear angle tells the story. Rickover’s fear was that reactor accidents and leaks would shut down this promising technology.

Testing was one way he coped with that fear. In 1953, he prepared to test an exact duplicate of the reactor planned for Nautilus. Rickover wanted realism, so he had it mounted inside a section of submarine hull, complete with a propulsion system, to simulate the load on the steam plant. The location was a test facility in Idaho. The “Submarine Thermal Reactor, Mark I” (STR-1) ran fine in the first few hours: so well, in fact, that he could have stopped and called the test a success. Instead, he told the test crew he wanted to keep the reactor running long enough to simulate a voyage from North America to Ireland. Halfway through that span, the plant was making loud and worrisome noises.

Against much opposition from his team, he insisted on completing the four-day test, because it was better to learn fatal flaws on land than at sea. A teardown showed that the reactor did everything it was supposed to; it was the drive train that needed work.

Bureaucratically speaking, continuing with the full test was foolish, since Rickover’s file happened to be in front of an admirals’ review board that was strongly inclined to kick him into retirement. It would have been smarter to turn off STR-1 early and hush up any problems.

Instead, this story shows that Rickover’s fear was not about career or even his own hide. It was fear of releasing a flawed and dangerous technology into the world. Throughout the Nautilus project he not only sought out bad news, he demanded it.

When leaders are being picked to develop risky but promising technology, in which the margin of safety will be very slim, we will need more Rickovers.

Will the selection process find these needles in the haystack? If I had to think of a single trait that distinguishes Rickover of Naval Reactors from the much larger crowd of narcissistic, self-glorifying leaders, I'd suggest looking at risk tolerance. What risks have the candidates taken up to now, and why?

Rickover repeatedly took on big risks. But his life and times show that the goal he pursued by taking such risks wasn’t to stave off boredom, to ingratiate himself, or to pave the way for a cushy contractor job after retirement. His goal was nothing less than excellence: “No disasters on my watch – not on anybody’s watch.”

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Lecture I Never Gave

I've probably given my last lecture on the subject matter of Inviting Disaster. But I can't complain: that totals over fifty talks between 2001 and 2018, taking me as far west as Hawaii and as far east as Greece. I met many interesting people with fresh insights into the machine frontier: engineers, scientists, nuclear-weapons-watchers, pilots, soldiers, forensic investigators, rescuers, and refinery operators. 

A partial list of topics I covered in eighteen years of keynotes and seminars:

  • System fractures
  • Living (and dying) with the NRTL, the narcissistic risk-taking leader
  • The red zone: why people build their houses in areas of known hazard, and why they expect others to pick up the costs
  • Disaster investigations as offering a window into normally opaque dealings
  • Two centuries of heavy-rescue 
  • Sinking of the Titanic
  • Arthur Woods and his radical reforms to the NYPD
  • Piper Alpha and the consequences of pencil-whipping problems
  • A lesson from World War 2: the teachings of “Doctor Facts”
  • High performance teams and the first technological rescue: the submarine K-13
  • Electrical system mishaps and emergent behavior in control systems
  • Precursors and warnings, aka red flags

Which prompts this look-back question: What topics did I not get around to covering in my Inviting Disaster lecturing days?

One would have been a lecture on the importance of learning from one's own errors, at the end of which I'd have made a rousing invitation for any and all to join the Mistake-Makers Club. I didn't give that particular talk, but I did write it as an oped column, so here it is, reproduced from the National Board's Winter 2018 issue.


Lately I've been seeing a string of articles about the globe's most exclusive clubs. One for the one-percenters is Club 33, an unlabeled, members-only restaurant in Disneyland's New Orleans Square. The initiation fee is $25,000 and up, depending on privileges, and the yearly fee starts at  $12,500 (Note to the budget-minded: meals and drinks are extra). Even so, the waiting list to join the club is said to be 14 years long. Across the ocean, there's the famous A-lister huddle called the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

But nothing I've come across matches the exclusivity of Google Camp, sponsored by the Google founders. Invitations go out to just a few hundred of the world's VVIPs. This year's Google Camp was held at Verdura Resort on a Sicilian island. 

Meanwhile, traditional clubs like Kiwanis, Freemasons, Elks, Moose, and Rotary are desperate for newcomers to replace long-serving elders. The Elks' roster has dropped by half in 25 years, by a million members.

The solution to that problem probably isn't chartering yet another organization, but even so I have in mind a club with a potential eligibility in the billions, to wit, “anyone who has made the kind of goof-up that is vividly, and quickly, clear to the mistake-maker.” So I call it the Mistake-Makers Club. Even though it doesn't pander to the uber-wealthy, they're as welcome as anyone who's made a mistake.

Do the rich and famous make face-palming mistakes? Sure they do! One is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, who recently received a full measure of social-media scorn after he live-streamed a “really magical” virtual-reality tour that placed his cartoon self in the middle of hurricane-wrecked Puerto Rico. And there's Andy Rubin of Android fame, reportedly worth $100 million. He's eligible because his Essential smartphone company punched off an ill-conceived email to its customers asking for images of their personal identification, such as photo ID's and passports. Customers who replied later found that their images had gone not only to Essential, but every other customer on the list too. So there's a lesson in modern life: pre-checking a mass-distribution email is Essential. 

Errors come in many sizes and shapes. And the subject is evergreen. Here's an old one from the world of telegraphy, before Western Union customers learned the importance of verifying their messages. A solid citizen in San Francisco heard that a society lady in Los Angeles had lost all her cash. He helpfully filled out a telegram blank with the message “Assist Mrs. XXX immediately,” and had it transmitted to a legal associate in Los Angeles. He heard from the lady the next day. She was not at all indebted for his kindness; instead, she was in jail. Sloppy work at the telegraph key had sent a different message southward: “Arrest Mrs. XXX immediately.”

What kind of errors would I ask my club's members to tally in their private journals? Likely their simple and clear mistakes, not the Swiss-cheese, multi-factor variety that need an investigating board to unravel.  

As a charter member of the Mistake-Makers Club, and currently the only one, I'll explain. Having called out the importance of learning from other people's errors in Inviting Disaster, it occurred to me after giving a talk to NASA engineers that I might make a few mistakes in the future. Could I take action to avoid repeating them? I thought again of this passage from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, ever forget.”
“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don't make a memorandum of it.”

Psychology 101 supports the Queen's suggestion. Most of us (including me) like to regard ourselves as smart and reasonably careful. Recalling our own mistakes tarnishes that self-image, so we rinse our recollections, and we repeat our errors.  

In 2004 I began keeping a journal of my simple, obvious mistakes. The list makes reading that is three parts scary (the close-call ones) and one part funny (the really stupid ones). Many on my list have to do with cars. In November 2007 I started backing out of the garage without looking to see if there was another car behind me in the driveway. There was: my father-in-law's. Stopping two or three inches short of impact, I remembered I'd made the exact same mistake about ten years before. But the first time happened before I started keeping a mistake journal, and I credit my mistake journal with keeping me from doing that particular thing a third time. 

But the field of mistake-making is rich and varied, so the entries continued. The night before a trip to Japan, I drove by the cash machine. I put the bills in a traveler's pouch but foolishly left my debit card on the car's console. Using the same car, my wife dropped me at the airport. On the way home she saw my card. She figured I'd really need it, and called about a hundred times, but couldn't reach me because I was inside the secure area and I'd turned my cellphone off. 

I lost my wallet for the better part of a day and eventually found it in our garbage can by the curb. That earned this entry in the mistake journal: Never put wallet on a countertop overhanging the kitchen trash can. 

  • Garage door: left that open all night two years ago.
  • Gas grill: left that running all night.
  • Concrete stairwell: tripped going down, started to fall, and would have broken something important except for a lesson I learned from a medic on an offshore oil rig: always hold the guardrail!  
  • Stuff sitting on stepladders: Left a hammer on one which, in falling, beaned a relative (my mom).

Meeting Crisis No. 1: I arranged to meet John Flicker, the editor in charge of my helicopter book, who happened to be attending a conference in my home city of Minneapolis. He gave me his cellphone number and we arranged a time and day to meet by the main door of his hotel's lobby. I wrote his cell number on a slip of paper and somehow lost it on the way to the hotel. No problem! I arrived in plenty of time, and occupied a sofa commanding what clearly was the main entrance. A half hour past the appointed time, I began to wonder: could a hotel have two main entrances? It could! I found John and he was less than happy. What a way to warm up your boss!

Meeting Crisis 2: In the early days of Mapquest, I printed out the directions to the location of the conference center in Mankato, Minnesota, where I'd be giving a talk to a state group of emergency managers. Those directions sent me deep into an undeveloped and unlit industrial park. Now worried about being late, I started back to the main highway to get directions at a gas station. Distracted, I rolled through a stop sign on the way. Sure enough: bright and flashing lights in my rearview mirror. The officer walked up, pulled out his ticket book, and asked me what I was doing there. I explained and he laughed: “I'm on my way to hear your talk! Just follow me.” 

Simple. Avoidable. Painfully obvious. What mistakes like these have you been making in your home or line of work? Blush-inducing memories are vivid for a day or two but won't last. Write them down, and right away. If you scan your list whenever you add another, if you can laugh and learn, you have my nomination to join the Mistake-Makers Club. Oh: about that staircase into the clubhouse ... hold the  handrail.