Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass was a highly decorated former U.S. Naval Aviator with roughly 6,500 flight hours.
Of those hours, Snort logged 4,800 in the F-14 Tomcat, the jet Maverick made famous in the original Top Gun film and holds the record for the most hours flown in the Tomcat.
To say he was an experienced pilot is grossly understated.
Over his 27-year career, Snort flew 34 combat missions over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
A Legend Was Born
In 1988, Snort was photographed making this now famous, super low banana pass fly-by of the USS America flight deck. It’s been called the “coolest fly-by in aviation history.”
Snort’s war stories are legendary.
While flying a night combat mission over Iraq, one of the two engines on his F-14 stalled and wouldn’t restart, leaving him with two not-so-great options:
Descend to a lower altitude, directly into anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire, praying the denser air would help restart the engine or light the afterburner in the good engine and attempt to escape the area.
Neither option was ideal. Risk getting shot down by enemy AAA fire or getting mistaken as a single-engine Mig by friendly forces.
Snort got creative.
He decided to use the minimum afterburner on the good engine while descending to attempt a restart. This approach worked, and he managed to climb out with both engines in full afterburner, allowing him to escape.
After his final cruise, Snort became the Navy’s demo pilot for the F-14D Super Tomcat and wowed airshow audiences nationwide. Years later, he retired from the Navy but continued to perform air show routines in P-51s, F-86s, F4U Corsairs, and other warbirds.
If that wasn’t enough, Snort co-founded the Draken International Adversarial Civilian Air Force. He and the other founding members flew an international mix of retired military aircraft as the highly respected Black Diamond Jet Team.
For Snort, it was the capstone to an amazing career.
On July 24th, 2021, Snort was lined up on runway 12 at Lewiston-Nex Perce County Airport in Idaho, about to takeoff for a short 20-minute flight home. He was sitting at the controls of his newly purchased SIAI-Marchetti SM-1019B, an airplane for which he logged only 20 flight hours.
During the takeoff roll, and immediately after the SM-1019 B’s wheels lifted off the runway, his nose pitched up sharply, rolled to the left, and then nose-dived into the ground, killing Snort instantly.
The aviation community was in disbelief.
After all those hours… All the close calls during his combat missions…
After all the brutally tough night carrier landings at sea, at night, in bad weather, Snort died in a perfectly good, single-engine piston airplane?
After a thorough investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a final report on the crash – Snort failed to remove the control lock from his airplane before takeoff.
The control lock on the SM-1019B is painted red below the pilot’s knees, which restricts the use of ailerons and elevators while allowing full rudder use, making it possible to taxi but not to control the plane fully during flight.
Sadly, despite his extensive experience, it appeared that Snort failed to use his checklist and conduct a proper pre-flight inspection for the flight that day.
Snort will always be a hero to generations of future pilots. He has inspired so many of us to pursue aviation by sharing his passion and love of flying with the world.
What happened to Snort can and does happen to so many of us in any industry.
When Complacency Replaces Vigilance
Snort entered the most dangerous level of proficiency, where complacency replaces vigilance, as seen in this chart:
With “Performance” on the Y-axis and “Time” on the X-axis, you can see how complacency can creep in over time.
When first learning something new and difficult, we start at the lower left-hand corner of the chart.
It’s during this time when our skill level is at its lowest, and progress is difficult. It’s also a stressful time because we’re bombarded with new information and exerting tremendous energy just to keep up.
The good news is that we’re laser-focused, and the chances of becoming complacent are next to nothing.
After a while, our proficiency increases, we can manage our stress more effectively, and we’re in the sweet spot of competence. However, we can slip from the sweet spot into complacency if we’re not careful.
Snort’s accident teaches us that complacency isn’t simply an inconvenience that degrades our performance. It can also kill us and others if we don’t identify it and make adjustments.
During my time as a Thunderbird, complacency became all too real.
During one of our formation maneuvers, which requires all the aircraft to fly a few feet apart at several hundred miles per hour, I caught myself thinking, “What am I going to make for dinner tonight??”
Did I really become proficient enough that I could think about my dinner options while executing an extremely dangerous maneuver?
Yes. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true, and it was an instant wake-up call.
Like Snort, I entered the danger zone. My complacency replaced my vigilance, which not only put me at risk but my teammates as well.
What Leads to Complacency?
Complacency will happen to all of us at one time or another. It’s pointless to try and avoid it. It’s natural and human. Instead, we can learn to recognize and correct it when we sense it coming.
Here are a few reasons we become complacent – see if you can spot any of these in yourself:
History of Success / Past Achievements
Success can make us feel invincible and resistant to change, which can cause us to make bold assumptions about our abilities. Always remember that success is not guaranteed to last forever, and we must continue to work hard to keep it going.
Routine and Familiarity
When a task becomes second nature, we may stop assessing the associated risks and assume we know what we’re doing. Getting too comfortable in our routines can lead to mistakes, especially if the situation changes unexpectedly.
Lack of Feedback
When we lack challenging goals or a culture of encouraged improvement, it becomes difficult for us to recognize areas for improvement. Being open to feedback can help us identify strengths and weaknesses and make the necessary adjustments to improve.
Lack of Motivation
When we lack challenging goals or competition, our desire to improve begins to wane. We get comfortable with our current level of success while failing to see opportunities for improvement. When we lose that drive, laziness sets in.
Failure to Adapt to Change
A failure to adapt to change, which is inevitable, can make our forward progress much more tedious and time-consuming. It’s closely related to a lack of motivation because we’re unwilling to step out of our comfort zones and start to feel comfortable where we are.
Signs Complacency is Creeping In
It’s important to be aware of the warning signs that complacency is starting to settle in. By recognizing the warning signs early, we can take proactive steps to prevent complacency altogether.
Here are some warning signs to look out for:
Inconsistent performance could indicate that we’re not putting in enough effort to maintain our performance levels.
Our unpredictable performance can become a vicious circle, starting with a lack of desire to improve, potentially leading to a general lack of motivation, job dissatisfaction, or disengagement.
Neglecting our Routines
When we start overlooking minor errors or neglecting our routines (e.g., opting out of using a checklist), it may signal a decline in our focus.
Our neglect could result from several reasons, such as burnout, lack of desire, or even a medical condition, so it’s important to keep an eye on it.
Resistance to Feedback
Our reluctance to seek or accept constructive criticism can lead to complacency, which can impede our progress toward self-improvement.
Our resistance can range from fear of failure to a lack of trust in the person giving us the advice.
When we become overly confident in our abilities solely based on our past successes, it can be problematic.
Overconfidence can lead us to underestimate potential risks and not take necessary precautions, which is especially dangerous in jobs with great consequences for simple mistakes.
Lack of Initiative
When we become too comfortable with our current situation, it can lead to a decreased lack of desire to take on new challenges or responsibilities.
Lack of initiative is not necessarily a sign of laziness but rather a symptom of being too comfortable in one’s current role or environment.
Repeated Accidents / Incidents
Dismissing repeated accidents or incidents can pose a serious risk to the safety of ourselves and our team.
These patterns are a clear sign of concern in any industry. It’s important not to ignore or downplay these occurrences. Instead, they should be analyzed and treated as valuable learning opportunities.
Disregard for Protocols / Procedures
When we disregard protocols or procedures, it can result in dire consequences.
Failure to adhere to established protocols may result from complacency, lack of proper training, or overconfidence.
How Can We Avoid Complacency
Now that we understand the importance of monitoring complacency, how can we correct it when we recognize it happening to us?
More importantly, how can we create new patterns and routines to keep complacency in check?
Set Challenging but Achievable Goals
In order to stay motivated and focused, try setting difficult yet realistic goals.
For athletes, this could mean running a certain distance in a set time or lifting a specific weight. Make them challenging but achievable so we can celebrate the wins, stay motivated, and keep progressing.
Pro Tip: Make sure your goals are specific, measurable, and time-bound to maintain motivation and purpose, even when facing obstacles.
Seek Constructive Criticism
Seeking feedback from peers and mentors is essential for personal and professional growth. It allows you to identify areas for improvement and refine your skills, leading to greater success in all aspects of life. All of the greatest leaders in history sought feedback from their peers.
Pro Tip: Continuous improvement is a constant pursuit, so make it a habit to seek feedback regularly and use it to inform your ongoing efforts to improve and grow.
Encourage healthy competition within our teams and organizations by creating challenges like hitting sales targets or productivity goals and rewarding those who meet or exceed them. A healthy dose of competition increases productivity and adds team building and entertainment to any culture, which helps keep complacency at bay.
Pro Tip: Encourage team leaders to support opportunities for healthy competition. These activities can help motivate everyone to perform at their best while making it fun.
Stay Curious and Open to New Ideas
Remain open-minded to new ideas in your profession and daily life, another important character trait for strong leadership. Embracing change can lead to significant advancements. By doing so, you can broaden your perspective and open up new opportunities for growth and development.
Pro Tip: Being receptive to new ideas can help you stay ahead of the curve and succeed in your personal and professional endeavors.
Establish Procedures and Protocols
Creating deliberate protocols and procedures to avoid complacency leading to oversights is essential in any industry. These protocols might include regular training to reinforce procedures, accountability measures to ensure adherence, and frequent audits to identify and address weaknesses.
Pro Tip: Document every process repeated three times or more. Documenting laments a procedure and, when made available to everyone, will minimize the risk of potentially fatal errors in the future.
What I’ve Learned
Flying taught me a valuable lesson about life: – complacency can cause serious problems for ourselves and those around us. However, we can take charge and avoid this trap.
We can maintain high-performance levels by setting challenging goals, embracing a learning mindset, seeking feedback, and being open to growth.
We all must find our way through the first phase of learning, low competence, and heightened stress. Once you settle into the sweet spot, it is possible to stay there, but you’ll need to be intentional.
Let’s apply these lessons to our lives and professions for a safer and more successful future.