Crew Resource Management (CRM) gives us the tools to make safe, prudent decisions; it’s something I wish I’d had while flying a JetRanger on a seismic survey contract in Papua New Guinea. Knowing what could hurt me would have prevented my nearly being eaten by a huge crocodile.
Mike Keith, a pilot with me on contract, and I (stupidly) agreed to go crocodile hunting at midnight with two line cutters Russ and Tom Dooley. I should have known to say no; a week earlier; Russ had thrown a 16-foot python in the back seat of my aircraft in a burlap sack.
Mike, Tom, Russ, and I loaded a car battery, searchlight, a cooler full of drinks, and Tom’s woefully inadequate AR-22 rifle into a 10-foot flat-bottom aluminum boat.
Mike said to Tom and Russ, “OK, you’re the experts. What you want us to do?”
Russ explained, “I’ll be in the bow with the searchlight and pan the water looking for the red reflection of a croc’s eye. You can tell the size of the croc by the size of the red reflection. Tom will aim the boat at the croc, I’ll have him cut the engine and we’ll drift towards him very quietly. Mike, you’ll be up here with me.”
"OK,” Mike said weakly.
“I’ll grab the croc’s snout. Mike, you grab the base of the tail; together we’ll haul it in.
I asked, “How big a croc do you think we can handle?”
Tom answered, “Three feet maybe.”
No worries,” Russ said, “You’ll see.”
It was as dark as a deep cave in the snake-slithering, centipede-swarming, wet, leach-infested, hot, humid, bug-crawling jungle we were floating through.
Tom opened the cooler, “Coke or a beer?”
“Gimme a Coke,” Russ said. “I need to stay sober for this.”
Good idea. We all took a can of Coke.
From the bow, Russ panned the water with the spotlight, the engine slowly ticking over as four men watched, waited, drank Coke, watched, and waited some more.
An hour passed. No luck. Finally Russ said, “Tom, turn around. Maybe our luck will change.”
Tom turned the boat around. Russ continued to sweep the water with the light. Five minutes passed when he said, “I see one!”
Mike said, “Yeah, I see the red eye too.”
“Get up here with me Mike.”
Mike moved next to Russ.
At 20 yards Russ said to Tom, “Cut the engine.”
The boat ghosted forward, all eyes on the little red eye growing slightly larger the closer we got. Five yards, four, three, two, one … “Now!” Russ hollered.
The two men thrust their hands into the water followed by Russ letting out an almighty “Yeeeeeeooooooowwwww,” then “Ahhh S--t!” when the little croc bit into his finger.
Mike tried to grab the croc’s tail but missed as Ross threw his hand in the air, the little croc still attached, then let go in mid-air, his trajectory landed him with a distinct plop into the boat causing Russ to fall backward onto Mike, causing Mike to fall backward into me, with his foot catching the searchlight wire connected to the battery plunging us into total darkness.
Tom fell behind me accidentally discharging his weapon: Blam!”
Russ hollered, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
Mike screamed, “Someone get the light!”
I scampered aft to disarm Tom, trying not to get shot.
The boat rocked wildly as we scrambled, night-blinded, for equilibrium at the same time trying to avoid the little croc with razor-sharp teeth.
At one point, I thought we might capsize as we all tried to avoid the wild, probably very pissed off, croc.
Russ managed to reconnect the wires. The light came back on spotlighting a very frightened little croc under one of the seats. Russ grabbed its snout securing it with twine, and held it up proudly like some great white hunter. We were relieved the little guy wasn’t hurt.
“And that’s how it’s done gentlemen.”
Mike said skeptically, “Really? I think we need to improve our technique.”
“We’re lucky none of us was shot,” I added.
The three of us turned to look at a sheepish-looking Tom Dooley who simply shrugged, then restarted the outboard. We proceeded downstream looking for another croc.
Twenty minutes later we rounded a bend. “There’s another one,” Russ said.
The eye was significantly larger than the little guy’s we’d caught previously. It got larger and larger the closer we got.
Russ said, “Cut the engine.”
We were now drifting towards it in silence now, the red eye growing bigger, bigger and bigger.
Mike asked the question I had on my mind, “How big do you think it is, Russ?”
“Dunno. Big. Pretty bloody big.”
Twenty yards to go.
“How big is bloody big?” Mike nervously asked.
"Fourteen, sixteen feet maybe. She’s big. Yeah, probably too big. Tom, start the engine!”
Tom didn’t need to be asked twice. He pulled the starter rope. Nothing.
Russ yelled, “Tom, start the bleedin’ engine!”
The eye was growing very big. “How big, Russ?”
“Eighteen feet maybe. If we ram the bastard we’ll all be screwed!”
Everyone urged in unison, “START THE BLOODY ENGINE!!!”
Ten yards and bearing down on the huge, prehistoric, soon to be very angry beast, Tom, pulled on the rope in quick succession his efforts in vain.
Russ, Mike, and I began backpedaling as Tom madly pulled on the starter cord. Our small boat was on a collision course.
Russ suddenly exclaimed, “What the bloody hell?” as we watched his light beam illuminate a red Coke can floating harmlessly in the shallows causing a collective sigh of relief.
Tom eventually got the engine started; we released the little crock unanimously deciding it was time to conclude a very eventful night of croc hunting.
So what CRM skills had we missed? 1. Invulnerability. 2. Machoism. 3. Unwillingness to challenge the experts. 4. Risk Shift - a group is more prone to riskier decisions than an individual. 5. Incomplete communications. Had Keith and I known the full ramifications of what we were getting ourselves into we would have never left our croc-free camp.