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I grew up in Hawaii. You know what that’s like — warm, sunny weather just about every day. Our summer temperatures typically run in the mid- to high 80s, with winter cold snaps plunging the mercury into the mid- to low 80s. My only previous winter driving had been at Fort Rucker in the polar regions of south Alabama.
I was excited about going to my first aviation assignment out of flight school. I was assigned as the executive officer (XO) for an aviation company at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I arrived there in late February, just in time for some heavy snow.
One morning, my commander called before physical training to let me know the roads were “Condition Black” due to heavy snowfall and we didn’t have to report until 1300. I thought, “Wow, I’m being told to stay home because there’s too much snow on the roads. I like this Army job!” A few days later, we were informed the area was expecting freezing temperatures the next morning, so there would be no PT and we were to come in at 0900.
As the XO, the company commander was my supervisor. We were the only commissioned officers and worked in the back half of the office along with the first sergeant. The orderly room clerks, a supply sergeant and Sgt. Smith — an unforgettable mechanic who worked as the admin sergeant — occupied the front half of the room.
Recognizing I might not be up to snuff on winter driving, Sgt. Smith approached me and asked if I was familiar with black ice. I told him no. He quickly explained what black ice was and, more importantly, recommended techniques on how to deal with it. Although this was more than 10 years ago, I clearly remember him saying, “Sir, the roads will look normal, but there will be a clear layer of ice on them that can kill you.” He explained I needed to leave home a bit earlier, drive slower and allow more time and distance to brake. He particularly emphasized that I needed to stick to the main roads and avoid backroad shortcuts.
Just as forecast, ice covered everything the next morning. I remembered Sgt. Smith’s advice, so I left home earlier than normal to avoid the rush-hour traffic along Highway 41A. Driving on ice was a new experience for me — one that reminded me of hydroplaning on a wet road. I was glad I had a front-wheel-drive car with good tires. By the time I made it onto post, I figured all the traffic on the main roads had helped melt the ice on them.
I drove through main post along Chaffee Street and headed to Range Road — a backroad shortcut to the airfield. I wasn’t paying attention and approached the intersection of the two roads too fast. I hit the brakes, lost traction and started to slide. Just then, I saw a truck approaching on my left. I knew I couldn’t stop before I got to the stop sign. I figured I was either going to hit the truck or land in the ditch on the far side of the road, maybe flipping my car. Only then did I remember Sgt. Smith’s last tip, “Avoid the backroads!”
I slid through the stop sign and steered to the right to avoid the ditch. My left tires had just slid off the pavement when I regained control of my car. Although the slide only lasted a few seconds, fear made it seem a lot longer as I contemplated landing in the ditch or smashing into the truck. I eventually made it to work — shaken but unharmed.
Back then, I didn’t know what risk management was, so Sgt. Smith did what all good noncommissioned officers do. Although he wasn’t my supervisor, he took care of this junior officer. Some Soldiers think officers can and should always be able to take care of themselves. Thank goodness Sgt. Smith didn’t assume that. When he learned I wasn’t familiar with winter driving and black ice, he took it upon himself to educate me. He identified the hazards and instructed me on how to mitigate the risks. I followed his advice, but only partially. I got complacent upon arriving on post and, against his warnings, took a backroad. I’d failed to realize the backroads were icier than the main roads and didn’t reduce my speed appropriately. Luckily, no one got hurt and my car and the truck escaped unscathed.
So what are the lessons learned? First, some things are more important than rank. Be willing to listen to anyone who is knowledgeable about the hazards you are facing and understands how to use risk management to mitigate them. Second, once you have developed controls, follow through with all of them. Don’t change your mind to choose a 70 percent solution. When it comes to safety, 70 percent solutions can easily become 100 percent disasters.