The Rules are Written in Blood

Fighter aircraft are amazing combinations of machinery, technology, software, and the human mind.  Old and young alike are awed at airshows that display fighters from the Pursuit (P) aircraft of the World Wars to the Fighter (F) and Attack (A) aircraft of the modern era.

Miracles in motion that they are, they are still bound by rules and regulations.

They have simple rules like speed limits, g-limits, and angle of attack limits.  They also have more complex rules that say if you’re rolling left with a missile on the right wing and you’ve got half a tank of gas, make sure not to exceed 14 units of AoA.  Some rules seem arbitrary (“Don’t fly with your feet resting on the brake pedals…”), and others ridiculous (“Lower landing gear prior to touching down…”).

There’s a saying, though, that the rules of aviation are written in blood.  Even if the rule doesn’t immediately make sense, most know that somewhere, at some point, someone probably died and caused that rule to be written. 

For that reason, the pilot community has an extremely low tolerance for those who flout the rules.  The Maverick-esque “There was no danger…” doesn’t fly in the US military…literally.  Pilots who disregard protocols are generally grounded (though there is the occasional famous exception).  Often, they are forced to stand in front of their squadron and explain themselves–an act that serves both as a humiliation and as a lesson to the others not to repeat the error.  Fighter pilots may have a reputation for going against the flow and breaking all the rules, but the opposite is actually true.

On the other hand, military pilots feel like they spend all day following rules and making judgment calls in extremely dangerous situations and successfully (and safely) accomplishing the mission.  As a result, the temptation arises to ignore the “little” rules in everyday life that don’t make sense or are so much “less” dangerous than what the pilot does on a day to day basis.  After all, if you just came down from a 2 hour sortie dogfighting in a multi-million dollar aircraft, who cares if you drive 65 in a 55MPH zone, “ignore” the email telling you to meet a deadline, or walk from the squadron to your car without putting your hat on?

And therein lies the rub.  Living “right”–a life of upright ethics–demands that you make the right decision all the time, not just when it comes to the “big ones.”  The fact that a military officer is faced with serious and significant decisions does not eliminate his responsibility to act ethically in the small and seemingly insignificant ones.  On the contrary, the “small” decisions become that much more important.

The saying isn’t “we trust you in big things, so we’ll ignore your indiscretions in little ones.”  It’s “we trust you in little things, therefore we’ll extend that trust to big things.”

A military officer, even a fighter pilot, who can’t be trusted to make the correct ethical decisions on the ground–at one g and zero knots, as the saying goes–undermines the ability of people to trust him in all circumstances, including the immense pressure and rapid decision making required in flight.

Likewise, a Christian who “slides” on the “small” ethical decisions undermines not only his professional credibility, but also his Christian witness.

A military officer, and a Christian, should strive to live their live above reproach.  That doesn’t mean it will be easy to do so, particularly when ignoring “small” things is fairly common in the fighter pilot culture.  The standard, though, is to make the right decision, not the easy one.

Luke 16:10
Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.