Safety Standdown in Asheville

In Naval Aviation, Safety Standdowns are periodic events that are put together to help aviators optimize safety awareness while in flight and on the deck.  The Safety Standdown is a day where all aircraft remain on the deck and the entire squadron gathers together to hear or provide safety-related discussions on a wide range of topics (e.g. having a state trooper relate the importance of wearing seatbelts (I can attest to that!), an aerospace physiologist share the latest research on the systemic impact of sleep deprivation, etc.).

While all hands were usually happy to have a breather from the flight schedule, the day served to remind everyone that aviation is inherently dangerous and one must remain ever vigilant against complacency.  Invariably when one gets complacent checklist items are skipped, corners are cut, and mishaps can easily follow.  It is important to note that these day-long events were scheduled periodically, most often at times where complacency might be higher than usual.  Typically a Safety Standdown would occur half-way through deployment where many start to think, “We’ve got this…” as they switch to autopilot and become less mindful about operations.  Another optimal time was just before redeploying home when many minds have already shifted to reuniting with family members after the long separation and may be suffering from “Get-home-itis, ” where potential safety red flags might be ignored to avoid delaying homecoming.  And, of course, a Safety Standdown is an expected evolution following any mishap, be it crunching metal or injuring personnel.

As our current travels resemble a deployment more so than not (and I’ve already touched on the value of checklists), I had already noticed that in resuming our travels this phase we were maybe a little looser in following SOP than our prior journey. For example, the grey water drain valve had been left open following tank dumping procedures, which is no big deal really as it just meant Flight got his shoes washed with some soapy water while getting hooked up at our next campsite.  We had also missed setting a cotter pin on one side of our Blue Ox tow bar contraption, which meant that by the time we arrived at our next campsite one of the two larger pins that directly connect the Subaru to the Blue Ox tow bar had not been locked in place and had wriggled half-way free in transit.  Although our tow bar has safety cables in the event of such a mechanical disconnect, I’d prefer not to see them engaged.  You’d think that two seasoned naval aviators would take these signs of complacency for what they were and immediately debrief the possible consequences of departing from checklists, but we were too wrapped up in our deployment experience to make that a priority.  Shame on us.  Instead, our Safety Standdown was triggered by a mishap.

We departed Charleston at a most civilized hour entirely delighted by our introduction to this lovely city and meandered northwest to Asheville, NC.  After a stop at Congaree National Park (I’ll get to that shortly), we arrived at the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area & Campground and registered to get our lovely spot nestled in the trees.  Even if a spot is “drive through,” we tend to disconnect the Subaru and park it out of the way so I can help Flight maneuver Davista into the ideal location (depending on layout, water and electrical hook-up locations, view, obstructing branches, etc.) within our assigned spot.  Our Carpinteria episode taught us well.

Although the details of who discovered our blunder and when are open to interpretation, the upshot is that when either Flight or I opened the door to collect the hardware box used to store the Blue Ox tow bar connection gear and set the parking brake (that became SOP when we had forgotten to do so once early in our travels on a not so level road – yikes!), it was more than a little surprisingly to find it was already engaged.  My brain slowly leapt beyond the mildly befuddled observation “Well, that’s not supposed to be like that” to meet Flight’s “Holy crap.  How long has that been on?! “ to “Shoot – We likely no longer have a functioning Toad.”  !!!  I then cycled through today’s activities to try to pinpoint how we might have managed such an oversight.

Let me back up. Before departing Charleston, we had discussed making a stop at Congaree National Park, because it was so darn close to our intended path.  It was another opportunity to learn about the biodiversity of a pocket of our country we’d not yet seen and probably wouldn’t ever if we didn’t stop now.  Although it wasn’t as last minute an addition to our itinerary as the two stops I had suggested (insisted on?) from Tampa to Savannah, the conversation that followed that extended travel day was fresh in my mind, which meant I was keen to minimize the time of our layover at Congaree.  I guess you could say I was sporting my own variety of “Get-on-the-road-to-our-next-home-itis.”

Upon our arrival at Congaree, we noted that all the spots in the oversized parking lot big enough to accommodate our crazy 51’ road show were taken up by NPS vehicles far shorter than ours.  Dang it.  To fit in the remaining longer than normal spots without blocking traffic entirely, we had to disconnect the Subaru and take up two spots with our vehicles. Fortunately, Congaree was hardly slammed on this Tuesday afternoon and taking up an additional oversized spot with our regularly sized Subaru was entirely forgivable.

This particular National Park is an interesting mix of swamp, old growth bottomland hardwood forest, and more swamp.  While the Visitor Center boasts some great information about the native population and the push to preserve Congaree’s biodiversity, I was ever aware of our time on the road ahead of us and did my best to make our stop most expeditious.

When we collected Junior Ranger books (a theme, you might note), there was not a Ranger in site. Several volunteers were at the desk, but they were not official NPS Rangers.  We learned there was a proscribed burn underway (used to cull the dead undergrowth and help the forest rejuvenate), which is an all Ranger hands on deck evolution and closed off a good portion of the main boardwalk hike through Congaree. Led by our complaining bellies, we returned to Davista to have a sandwich lunch while we sorted out what the girls needed to do and how much of the requisite hike was possible/necessary to complete their requirements before we could be away.


Hunger assuaged, we walked a mile along the boardwalk out to a short overlook peeking over a small, not particularly clean-looking, lake where we saw several turtles frolicking.


Along our boardwalk trek, we also saw some unique creatures, or evidence thereof.  I saw these houses (?) and had no idea what to make of them. I took this picture specifically to show the folks at the Visitor Center to ask what they were.


The answer?  Crawfish chimneys.  Apparently crawfish build these towers and turn circles about in their mud structures to create a center hole vent to increase the oxygenation of the water in their homes.  Pretty savvy, those crawdads.  We also saw several blue-tailed skinks running about the forest.


Running nowhere were the endless ranks of baldcypress knees, whose true purpose has yet to be identified.


The baldcypress is a cousin to the magnificent redwood and enormous sequoia trees whose acquaintance we made last fall as we meandered through California.  Unique to these southeastern swamp dwellers, are flared out trunks serving to offer stability in the ever-changing water levels.  These buttressed stems provide the strength to resist additional stresses without a deep root system, which might actually suffocate the tree in the low-oxygen environment of a typically waterlogged swamp.  Early botanists thought the knees provided a means of additional oxygen exchange by elevating the roots above the standing water, I thought this one looked like a faerie house.


That theory has since been disproven, so their true purpose remains one of the great mysteries of life.  Perhaps such existential rumination is what distracted me when we departed Congaree.


After the girls were sworn in for their 20thJunior Ranger badges, we hightailed it to Davista and rapidly made ready for driving into the seasoned (meaning worn smoother by time than the newer more jagged ranges out west) mountains of North Carolina.  A quick refresher on the checklist for readers would be a good idea.

The Hitching Up the Toad checklist to date looked a little something like this:

  • Unlock Blue Ox Tow Bar from locked position (locked “up” so it doesn’t drag)
  • Reposition Blue Ox Tow Bar into Y in preparation for hook-up
  • Maneuver Toad into position (or Davista if doing so solo – says Flight ??!?!!)
  • Toad parking brake – set
  • Keys in ignition, set to detent position 1 to enable lights mimicking Davista’s
  • Grab plastic box holding connection hardware from Toad
  • Pin Blue Ox tow bar into left and right sides of Toad connection points
  • Set cotter pins left and right (to lock connection pins)
  • Connect dead-man’s switch (in case both the tow bar and the cables fail, engaging Subaru’s brakes should she run tether-free)
  • Connect safety tow cables beneath tow bars
  • Connect red electrical cable above tow bars
  • Return plastic box holding connection hardware to Toad passenger seat
  • Gear shift in neutral
  • Disengage the Subaru parking brake

All good, right?

In principle, yes, yet we neglected to identify who was responsible for executing the final steps.  I had assumed that Flight was checking the settings for the key in the ignition and verifying the parking brake was off and the engine was not in gear. Flight was under the assumption I was setting the key, disengaging the parking brake, ensuring the stick shift was out of gear and he would verify (position one, parking brake off, gear shift neutral).

And so we exemplified the saying “When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me…” or at least it will burn out your Toad’s braking system.

Somehow, in our collective oversight, we missed that last step and dragged the Subaru behind us for 180+ miles with the parking brake engaged.  Oops.  The mechanic who outfitted us with new brakes informed us the old ones had gotten white hot during our travels from Congaree.  Flight and I realized that we have gotten off rather light by only having to purchase new brakes. The Toad could easily have burst into flames, but didn’t.  If we had lost our Toad, our journey would have come to a screeching halt.  As Flight is fond of saying, although averted for now, we could certainly see disaster from here.  Fortunately, it looked much less ominous through a pint of Sierra Nevada, and we settled into our Asheville time, our wallets a little lighter, but with brakes shiny and new.

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