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  • Alex Mathers

Amelia Earhart and Commissioning: The Value of Starting and Staying on Course


Earhart was the 16th woman to be issued a pilot's license. She had several notable flights,

including becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, as well as the first person to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific. Earhart remained determined to be the first pilot, man or woman, to circle the globe at the equator.

Early in 1936, Earhart started planning a round-the-world flight. Although others had flown around the world, her flight would be the longest because it followed a roughly equatorial route. In 1937, Earhart and her crew planned to fly East to West. The first leg from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. The next destination was Howland Island, a small island in the Pacific, but during the takeoff run the plane crashed and the attempt was scrapped.

Second Attempt

The second attempt reversed the flying direction from west to east. It started in Oakland, CA and stopped in Miami as well as South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, finally arriving at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. At this point, about 22,000 miles had been completed and the remaining 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific.

The plan was to fly from New Guinea to Howland Island, 2556 miles away. From there, they planned to continue to Hawaii. Howland Island is an uninhabited coral island located just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean and is only 1.5 miles wide. In the mid-1930s land was cleared as a landing strip, intended to be used as a midway point in transpacific air routes. These unpaved landing strips were specially improved in anticipation of Earhart’s scheduled refueling stop on the island in 1937.

To help Earhart find the island, a Coast Guard cutter Itasca was waiting to guide her to the island. Itasca, stationed at Howland Island, tried to keep in radio contact with her but radio reception was intermittent. Some of the ship's communications were on bandwidths that she didn't have the ability to receive. A radio direction finder on Howland that would work with Earhart's higher-bandwidth equipment required batteries, which were drained by the time she was in the area.

Itasca received spotty transmissions from Earhart's aircraft but after the communications went silent the crew assumed that the aircraft had gone into the ocean. Itasca immediately headed to the area of the last radio transmission and started search operations northward of Howland Island. Itasca and other Navy and Coast Guard vessels continued the search operation in the area until a few days later when the search was called off.

The 1 in 60 Rule

I am not a pilot and have never flown an airplane, so I don’t know about flight planning and aviation. What I do know is around Howland is ~1000 square miles of empty ocean. I have spent a lot of time on open water, and I can say that even 10 miles is a long way out from land. The land of Howland Island only makes up 0.0005% of the area around it.

Papua New Guinea to Howland Island is 2556 nautical miles which is an exceptionally long distance for dead reckoning. Reading articles about the event, I understand that errors of 15 miles for aerial fixes by celestial navigation would not be considered uncommon. Even if celestial navigation was perfect, the dead reckoning error would span distance of 120 miles taking the International Dateline into account.

The 1 in 60 Rule

In air navigation, the 1 in 60 rule is a rule of thumb which states that if a pilot has travelled sixty miles, then an error in track of one mile is approximately a 1° error in heading, and proportionately more for larger errors.

This means that the further you travel, the further you are from your destination. If you’re off course by just one degree, after a mile, you’ll be off by 92 feet. After a hundred miles you’ll be off by 1.6 miles. For a 2,500-mile flight, if Amelia was 1 degree off, she would miss her target by 41 miles. At the estimated 1,000 feet above sea level where Amelia was flying, she would not have been able to see the low lying, tiny island unless she was within 15 miles. To hit Howland Island (1 mile wide) by dead reckoning she would have to be within a ¼ of a degree in heading.

The point of all of this is that starting in the right direction and course correcting early makes a huge difference at the end.

Staying on Course with Commissioning

Quality is a degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfil owner requirements. Commissioning is the process of monitoring and recording results of quality activities to assess performance and recommend necessary changes. However, it is not just about detection. For non-conformance issues, appropriate action is taken for the prevention of poor quality.

A project started without a defined quality process is not likely to stay on track. All projects contain ambiguity, doubt, and uncertainty. They all have schedule and budget constraints; they all have challenges. But there are proactive quality activities that can - and should be - implemented from the start to ensure a successful landing.

Colloquially, commissioning is a term used at the end of construction. Usually bundled with startup and TAB, it is thought of as a switch that is flipped at project completion. Understandably, with all the planning, design and coordination, how could any mistakes be made?

The truth is, trying to “commission” a project at the end never works. We can’t inspect quality late into a project - just like a pilot can’t course correct hundreds of miles late in a flight when the plane is low on fuel.

It’s never too early to start commissioning on a project. Many project managers will attest that the most successful projects begin with commissioning the planning phase. A complete project is not just one that crosses an imaginary finish line (or reaches a destination). Warranty callbacks, defects and rework is a costly construction activity. The direct cost of rework activities on projects generally cost roughly 5%-10% of the total contract value on construction projects.

Aside from energy savings benefits, commissioning saves this rework cost by focusing on expectations. Commissioning is the proactive process that safeguards the objectives set out in the beginning by the owner. We look at the requirements, goals, and objectives to ascertain what we need to do to ensure the final result at turnover. With this strong foundation and understanding at project launch, it’s much easier to manage the project quality.

Proactive commissioning means anticipating the needs and challenges of the project so that the team is prepared to overcome them. Without a robust commissioning process in place, the project team is reacting to situations that arise during construction or even in the warranty period. The last-minute nature of this situation results in shortcuts that end up being high cost, high impact and erode the original owner’s intent.

Amelia Earhart and Commissioning

Starting a project in the right direction and course correcting early makes a huge difference at the end. Project leaders need to start with a solid flight plan to stay on course. Amelia’s flight planning requires considerations of safety, efficiency, cost and weather forecasts. But, even with careful planning, navigating over an ocean is dangerous.

Amelia Earhart’s sense of adventure still inspires to this day. People are as fascinated with who Earhart was and what she represents. She was someone who followed her dreams and was able to make history. Comparatively, our projects are low risk, and we may not have our own chapter in the history books, but the lesson of staying on course is one worth learning.


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