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Why [V1] Matters

August 5, 2008 12:35 AM

Velocity Speeds are something anybody who has commanded an aircraft should be intimately familiar with. There's a list of them that identify at what speeds certain events in an aircraft can occur. Vs, better known as stall speed, indicates at what speed the aircraft is not capable of generating enough lift to keep it airborne. Vne is the never exceed speed, indicating the maximum speed the airframe of an aircraft can tolerate.

The most important in my mind, and given its abbreviation I'm going to venture that others in the aviation community agree, is V1, Decision Speed.

V1 is the point during takeoff where regardless of what happens after, the aircraft is dedicated to flight. I encourage you all to read that over several times to understand it very well. When you get on a commercial flight to go anywhere there is a point when the plane is still hurtling down the runway, still in contact with good ol' Terra Firma, that regardless of what happens, the only option is flight. It doesn't matter what it is. An engine may go out, a tire may burst, it simply doesn't matter. The aircraft is committed to flight. While the difference in most commercial aircraft between the commitment to flight and the achievement of flight can be just a few seconds, a heavy aircraft on a short runway is going to have a much larger window.

V1 is something a pilot must calculate before each-and-every flight. It's a complex relationship between an aircraft an the environment that determines the V1 of an aircraft. Heat, elevation, humidity, barometric pressure, and runway length all shift V1 of the exact same aircraft dramatically. Taking off in Denver on a hot August day will have a much different V1 than taking off on a brisk January day in Minneapolis.

In the most extreme example of the different forms V1 can take, a Naval Aviator flying off an aircraft carrier at sea reaches decision speed without even moving. You see, aircraft carriers don't have a runway long enough to allow the plane to accelerate under its own power. The solution is rather simple: Attach the aircraft to an extremely powerful steam catapult and literally shoot it off the boat. Zero to over 140 miles per hour in 300 feet and a little over three seconds. It is such a quick and violent event that pilots are instructed to remove their hands from all the controls after saluting until just after the aircraft is off the deck.

In the YouTube view below, the minute the pilot salutes, indicating that he deems the aircraft is properly configured for flight, he has reached V1. Any action he or his co-pilot takes must be soley dedicated to achieving flight. Even while the aircraft is firmly bolted to the catapult on the deck of the ship, flight is the only option.

Why is this such a rare concept in business?

The most recent project I've been working on is one that is an incredibly large undertaking, integrating multiple business units, systems, and data all for the benefit of customers. This project has faced many challenges, some large, others small.

It wasn't until a few of those bigger challenges started piling up and our deadlines started growing closer that the project team had an emergency meeting to discuss things where phrases like "go-forward plan" and "go-no go" were used. The problem was that we had already communicated release dates and features within the company, to our executives, and most importantly, to our customers.

It was at that point where I had my own Moment of Zen about the entire project: We had already reached V1.

(Sidebar: It was later that night during a spirited evening of drinking that I thought up this entire "Why [IT] Matters" thing)

I instantly started explain the concept of V1, and how regardless of the challenges we faced, we were already committed to flight. Taking any action except one that would move things closer to actually achieving flight was a useless exercise, and in fact, more harmful to the project.

The reaction I received to my analogy and how it applied to our project at the time was the complete opposite of what I was expecting. I thought of it as a moment where the team could focus on a common goal, and instead it was met with utter disdain. I was shocked.

It wasn't until several months later that the Technical Project Manager and myself (Project Lead/Lead Engineer) went out for a beer after work and I brought it up again. In talking about it after-the-fact, he was still a bit defensive about the stance I took, but I went into it a bit further until he finally saw the points I was trying to make.

There's several things about V1 that I think apply directly to business.
  1. Calculating V1 is a flight planning task. It is something that happens long before the pilot ever starts an engine, let alone gets anywhere near a runway. V1 for any undertaking is something that should be known and communicated long before any tasks begin.

    Business, especially the technology sector (and software inparticular) creates an environment that is ripe for not having proper planning for what V1 actually is. Many of the deliverables and assets we maintain are somewhat intangible. If an aircraft fails to achieve flight, the consequences are disasterous and chances are you'll see it on the news.

    It's the serious consequences that build rules in aviation like V1. If a business project fails, it almost seems like it's the status quo. Business failures have dramatic consequences, some of which can cripple entire companies. Why is it that business initiatives can be treated so cavalier?

    Understand that any corporate initiative is much like a flight. Understand V1 before that initiative even gets going.

  2. Once you've reached V1, there are no decisions to make. You are committed to flight.

    In the case of my recent project, once the communications of our initiative had gone out, we were committed. The sole purpose of meetings is for a group to make decisions, but the project team meeting we had meant nothing, really - We were already committed to our deliverables. Our focus should have immediately shifted and completely narrowed to only those tasks necessary to get us in the air.

    I'm flat out amazed at how many projects I've seen come-and-go that never materialize the way they are planned. I would challenge anyone out there to state that they have never been part of an initiative that was unsuccessful. My guess is that we all have, regardless of the roles we take. I would also challenge anyone out to claim to have been in an equal number of aircraft accidents.

  3. Understand that V1 is something that must be calculated every time even if the aircraft is the same. Environmental conditions, which are ever-changing, are a chief variable in the equation.

    Just because a similar project or initiative has been successful doesn't mean another has the same "equation." The human resources, time, and funding of any project are constantly changing from one project to the next, and nothing should be assumed from one to the next. Each project must be treated as its own "flight" with its own V1

V1 - Decision Speed - Regardless of what happens after, you are committed to flight.

Why [Aviation] Matters.
Over the years, I've always been facinated with flying. My father was a Naval Aviator during the Vietnam War flying an A-3 Skywarrior off the USS Hancock. The largest plane to ever operate regularly off a carrier on the smallest carrier in the Navy's inventory in Vietnam.

I've logged about a quarter of the hours necessary to obtain my Private Pilot License for single engine aircraft and have a full flight simulator setup at home where I've logged thousands of hours over the years.

WTF Is This?
As I've progressed through Corporate America, I've noticed that several life experiences can be applied directly to the business world. This whole "Why [IT] Matters" series is my attempt to apply things I've learned towards things I do. While my focus is the technology industry, you could probably apply things to other industries as well.

Make sense? Good.

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