Cultures that Correct Defects – Soaring Club Case Study

My first example of how culture within an organization can be a key contributor to success was made clear to me when I was a student.  

I learned to fly at an old established gliding (soaring) club and actually earned my instructor rating before going to college.  Interestingly I observed as a young flight instructor a number of ‘safety-challenged’ operations by long-time members.  However, the culture in this club was to grimace behind the perpetrators back and not confront the individual with safety concerns.  It seems that seniority had its perks, including a hierarchy that prevented proper communications when near incidents occurred [1].

I formed a soaring (gliding) club at my undergraduate alma mater, Princeton University, with the help of Evan Flatow and Marina Schaum.  In the beginning, there was but one instructor (me) and about 80 students.  We ultimately got other instructors trained from this initial group of students like Steve Gervin, Mark Maughmer, Wally Hayes, and Marty Schneiderman.  Incidentally, astronaut Brian Binnie was one of the students I soloed at Princeton and  I was the examiner for his first pilot certificate check-ride. 

When we started we only had a two-place trainer (a venerable Schweizer SGU 2-22E).  But we soon added a single-seat sport sailplane (Schweizer SGS 1-26D) to allow recently soloed students to build time for their license and to enjoy soaring.  One of the rules I established was that every non-instructional flight would be critiqued by the instructor on duty.  This was relatively easy to start as there was a clean slate.  In fact, I soloed all of the early students so it was natural that I was the one giving the feedback, even when not in the sailplane.  This started out easy as I was the instructor for each and every student when we started this policy.  But this evolved as the club grew.

The typical scenario was that pilot would take up one of the sailplanes without the instructor, but the instructor on duty would keep an eye on the flight, even if the instructor was otherwise occupied.  After the pilot landed he/she would seek out the instructor and get any feedback that was appropriate.  Examples might include:   

  • “Good flight but you got a little too far downwind searching for lift.  Remember winds can shift during the flight, be sure to leave yourself sufficient margin.”
  • “You came in a little slow on final, be sure to watch your airspeed as you enter the wind gradient close to the ground.”
  • “I noticed that you were working the downwind side of the cumulus clouds for lift.  Today, as I was flying with a student, I observed that the thermals were building on the upwind side.  Be sure to start with wide searching patterns when in thermal lift to learn the conditions for that day.” 

This was a healthy arrangement and we had an excellent safety record.

The strength of the culture became really apparent after I graduated.  I returned to the soaring field and was barely recognized as the students and personnel on duty were new since my departure.  However, a senior pilot made a flight and landed in a single-place sailplane without an instructor.  He went over the instructor on duty to seek out feedback.  The instructor, who was more junior in age and club seniority to the senior pilot, told him that he was busy with a student and didn’t notice the flight.

The senior pilot was livid.  He said he paid good money to belong to the club and for that particular flight and he fully expects to be critiqued each and every flight.  In fact, he does not live that close to the club and key reason why he flies with the club is ensure that he is always getting better.  The senior pilot said that it was that instructor’s duty to fulfill that expectation and if he didn’t do a better job of critiquing his flying he would take it up with the officers of the club.

I was shocked.  Not only was there a culture of easy communication and discussion right at the point of greatest impact (the flight line), but it was considered a key value proposition to the long-time members.  I couldn’t have been more proud.

This experience allowed me to surmise the following maxim:

Correcting defects can be designed into an organization’s culture and
simultaneously be perceived as a key value contributor.

[1] This prestigious glider club was aware of its culture issue and worked to find solutions to address the safety concerns.  My understanding is that they have solved this issue through several intervention cycles and have adjusted their culture accordingly for new members and students.


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