Mayday! Mayday! The Wingman's Call to Action

"We're each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing each other."
--Luciano de Crescenzo

"Mayday!" is the universally recognized call of distress. It means "I need help . . . NOW!!"

It's a call you never want to make, but it could very well be the most important of your life. Fighter pilots use it during extreme emergency situations: when we lose an engine, are getting prepared to eject from an un-flyable aircraft, or witness an emergency affecting one of our wingmen.

At the sound of "mayday!" there is a call to action within seconds. Other pilots come to the afflicted pilot's aid in an effort to guide him or her to the nearest suitable landing field. These "chase ships" monitor the pilot in danger to make sure the proper procedures are performed. They conduct a "battle damage check" of the troubled plane--a visual inspection to see whether it's leaking fuel, smoking, or damaged in any way. Experienced pilots on the ground may even provide suggestions and advice on how to handle the emergency.

The pilot is never left alone until safely on the ground. This mutual support role is the number one reason why we never fly solo! Ground-based wingmen such as air traffic controllers, firemen, paramedics, flight surgeons, and maintenance troops are deployed to assist the emergency aircraft as it comes in to land. It's a disciplined, choreographed, and highly stressful process designed to ensure one primary objective: the safety of the pilot.

Being a wingman in life means when someone calls out "mayday!" to you, you're there . . . on time, on target, and ready to take action. It means you are the type of person others can come to for help. Are you that type of person at work and in your personal life? Or do you expect others to fly solo and fend for themselves?

s a young captain, I remember being late for a flight briefing while based with the 559th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. Being late for a briefing is strictly bad news in military flying. As a result, I was grounded that day (not to mention having to buy the donuts for my wingmen as a "penalty"). Needless to say, I was pretty bummed out. Not only did I let my wingmen down, but I embarrassed myself by messing up.

When my serious and demanding flight commander (Major Pat White, call sign "Psycho") approached me later that day, I was expecting to get an earful. You just didn't want to be on Psycho's bad side. What I heard is something I will never forget. Instead of chewing me out, he asked, "How's it going, Waldo?"

"Fine, Sir. Sorry for being late, it won't happen again."

"Listen. This isn't like you. You're never late for a briefing. Is everything OK at home? Do you feel all right? Do you need a day off? Talk to me."

"I'm fine, Sir. Just give me a donut, and I'll be all right."

"OK, Waldo. Let me know if you need anything." He never mentioned a thing about it again.

I was shocked. Instead of the expected reprimand, I was treated like a person first, and a pilot second. My respect for him skyrocketed. After that experience, do you think I became more loyal to Psycho? Do you think I went the extra mile for him when he asked? Finally, do you think I was willing to bring my problems to Psycho and even admit when I messed up?

The answer to those questions is obvious: absolutely!

When promoting health and safety at work, you have to think and act like a leader. This means putting your judgments, and even resentments, aside and working on creating a culture of courage where people are willing to admit their mistakes and make that "mayday!" call if they must. It also means asking questions of your co-workers and finding the root cause of why an accident or health issue may have happened.

•Have you noticed a pattern of ill health or accidents you can't explain?
•Are your employees saying they think their work is the cause?
•Do you have an open-door policy where others can approach you with their issues?
•Have you identified with someone at work whom you can go to for help, and are you willing to look outside of the workplace and seek help?

Let's face it, asking for help is tough because it is often interpreted by others as weakness and can leave us vulnerable to judgment. At work, it can even be seen as incompetence and can prevent us from getting promoted or taking on increased job responsibilities. The notion that asking for help is a sign of weakness or ineptitude is one of the greatest fallacies of business and life, and this bogus notion can literally strangle our ability to succeed. That's why real leaders give others the courage to come to them with their problems. Most importantly, they, too, know when to call out "mayday!"

I believe the three most important words in the English language are "I need help." When we reach out our hand to those who need help, we plant seeds of hope and courage that blossom into joy and fulfillment. It is a gift that can impact the health and safety of your organization by creating a culture of mutual support, shared responsibility, and a realization that service saves lives. It costs no money but pays off big time.

Until next time, may all your "Maydays!" lead to "Heydays!

Push it up!®

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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