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The launching and recovery are only part of a much larger process including maintenance, fueling and arming, and maneuvering and parking the planes on a crowded deck. What makes the process all so truly astonishing is that it is done not with people who have been working together for years but with a crew that turns over regularly. As writer John Pfeiffer observed, “The captain will be aboard for only three years, the 20 senior officers for about two and a half; most of the more than 5,000 enlisted men and women will leave the Navy or be transferred after their three-year carrier stints. Furthermore, they are predominantly teenagers, so that the average age aboard a carrier comes to a callow 20.”

What sort of organization can operate so reliably under such handicaps? La Porte, Roberts, and Rochlin spent a great deal of time on several carriers both in port and at sea, during training and on active duty, and they believe they understand at least part of the answer.

On the surface, an aircraft carrier appears to be organized along traditional hierarchical lines, with authority running from the captain down through the ranks in a clearly defined pattern. And indeed, much of the day-to-day operation of the ship does proceed this way, with discipline rather strictly enforced. Thick manuals of standard operating procedures govern this process, and much of the navy training is devoted to making them second nature. These procedures codify lessons learned from years of experience. But, as the Berkeley researchers discovered, the carrier’s inner life is much more complicated.

When things heat up, as during the launching and recovery of planes, the organizational structure shifts into another gear. Now the crew members interact much more as colleagues and less as superiors and subordinates. Cooperation and communication become more important than orders passed down the chain of command and information passed back up. With a plane taking off or landing once a minute, events can happen too quickly for instructions or authorizations from above. The crew members act as a team, each watching what others are doing and all of them communicating constantly through telephones, radios, hand signals, and written details. This constant flow of information helps flag mistakes before they’ve caused any damage. Seasoned personnel continuously monitor the action, listening for anything that doesn’t fit and correcting a mistake before it causes trouble.

A third level of organizational structure is reserved for emergencies, such as a fire on the flight deck. The ship’s crew has carefully rehearsed procedures to follow in such cases, with each member assuming a preassigned role. If an emergency occurs, the crew can react immediately and effectively without direction.

This multi-layered organizational structure asks much more from the crew than a traditional hierarchy, where following orders is the safest path and underlings are not encouraged to think for themselves. Here, the welfare of the ship and crew is everyone’s responsibility. As the Berkeley researchers note, “Even the lowest rating on the deck has not only the authority, but the obligation to suspend flight operations immediately, under the proper circumstances and without first clearing it with superiors. Although his judgment may later be reviewed or even criticized, he will not be penalized for being wrong and will often be publicly congratulated if he is right.”

The involvement of everyone, combined with the steady turnover among the officers and crew, also helps the Navy prevent such operations from becoming routine and boring. Because of the regular coming and going of personnel, people on the ship are constantly learning new skills and teaching what they’ve learned to others. And although some of the learning is simply rote memorization of standard operating procedures, the Berkeley researchers found a constant search for better ways of doing things. Young officers come on board with new ideas and find themselves debating with the senior noncommissioned officers who have been with the ship for years and know what works. The collision of fresh, sometimes naive approaches with a conservative institutional memory produces a creative tension that keeps safety and reliability from degenerating into a mechanical following of the rules.

The Navy has managed to balance the lessons of the past with an openness to change and create an organization that has the stability and predictability of a tightly run hierarchy but that can be flexible when necessary. The result is an ability to operate near the edge, pushing both people and machines to their limits but remaining remarkably safe.

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