Ethically, what would you do? Leave no one behind

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Every now and then, the Defence Ethics Programme comes across a case study so compelling that it has to be shared. While we have made minor modifications to ‘Canadianize’ the case study; the original—written by a former captain in the U.S. Navy—is adapted from real-life events and was originally published in the Journal of Military Ethics, 3(2004), 252-256. Adapted from: Stephen Coleman (2013). “Leave No One Behind,” written by Captain (Ret.) W Rick Rubel, U.S. Navy. In, Military Ethics, Chapter 3, Case Study 3.2, pp. 40-43. Oxford University Press.

As commanding officer of a search and rescue (SAR) squadron on Canada’s East Coast, Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Davis knew his men and women and cared a great deal about their welfare. He also knew and understood his mission and the unspoken dangers that it often entailed. LCol Davis knew the fine line between bravado and professionalism and instilled in his squadron the idea that if you have to take risks, make sure you understand, plan for, and minimize those risks while performing your duty. The squadron’s Sergeant Major, Chief Warrant Officer Linda Jones, was well-respected for getting the job done and for looking after the team. Together, LCol Davis and CWO Jones were a dynamic and well-liked team.

Each Tuesday, LCol Davis and CWO Jones held a training session with the squadron pilots and crews. During these sessions, they reviewed basic procedures and talked over operational and emergency flight parameters. They discussed the parameters of flight safety, and which of these areas a pilot could trade off in emergency situations, such as mechanical failure or weather conditions. The pilots and crew were comfortable enough with each other and with the squadron leadership team that they could ask hypothetical questions.

On one particularly cold day in October, the weather was terrible and unpredictable, and radio reports indicated winds were at 45 knots (with gusts up to 55 knots), with waves
and swells over eight metres (12 metres crest-to-trough). Sitting at his desk, lost in thought, LCol Davis was startled when his phone rang.

“Sam, it’s Jo from Ops. We’ve just received report of a confirmed man overboard from Canadian Coast Guard vessel Ann Harvey.”

Immediately, LCol Davis’s thoughts went to the Ann Harvey. An 83-metre-long vessel with a complement of 10 officers and 16 crew, the Ann Harvey – whose home port was St. John’s, Nfld. – was one of the largest vessels in the Canadian Coast Guard fleet.

Turning his mind back to his phone call, LCol Davis asked, “What are the weather
conditions out there, Jo?”

“That’s the problem,” Jo replied. “We have about zero-zero conditions (visibility) and 45-knot winds and eight-metre swells.”

Knowing he would be asked to provide a recommendation at the end of this call,
LCol Davis’s mind began to go through the flight envelopes, launch and recovery parameters, the hypothermia tables (how long a person can survive in the water) and the qualifications of his crew. After reviewing all of these considerations, the image of the sailor in the water trying to survive caused him to quickly say, “Let’s launch Team 313 and reset Team 315 as standby. I’ll assemble the rescue coordination team.”

Within 12 minutes, a full 18 minutes ahead of schedule, Team 313 lifted off. Ten minutes later, they radioed back that they were in the estimated position of the man in the water, noting that visibility was about 15 metres and there was no ceiling. In other words, they could see less than 15 metres around them. The odds for success on this mission were very low – finding a lone sailor in eight-metre waves, high winds, and reduced visibility was not going to be easy. LCol Davis, CWO Jones, and the remainder of the squadron were standing by, waiting for news from 313, when the phone rang.

“Sam, it’s Jo. I’ve just received word from the Ann Harvey. 313 spotted something in the water, and on the way down to a hover, caught a gust or a large wave, and they believe 313 went into the water. The Ann Harvey hasn’t heard from them in over two minutes.” After a long pause, Jo asked, “Do you want to launch 315 to go after them?”

Focussing on the question, time stood still for LCol Davis. Should he risk another flight crew to save the first crew in the water? Maybe he should ‘cut his losses’ and declare that it’s unsafe to fly. He knew he was well outside safe flight parameters. He had many people to answer to, including his base commander, pilots and crew – and their families. The squadron certainly wouldn’t want to lose another crew or plane. But his squadron pilots would certainly want to make another rescue attempt. “What about the families?” he thought. “How can I tell them I didn’t try to save their wives, husbands, sons, and daughters? But if I send another crew, and they go down, how will I explain to their families that we flew in these conditions – twice?”

While Ops waited on the phone, LCol Davis was trying to decide: What is the right thing to do?

What would you do if you were LCol Davis?

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