“I Got to Know”: Curiosity Is Essential for Risk Management

by | June 12, 2024

Gordon Graham here and hello again! Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings – and for the many emails I got regarding the work of Dr. Tony Kern after my last article. I am so happy that many of you are reading his books. My favorite “K book” is Going Pro – The Deliberate Practice of Professionalism – required reading for the class I teach at the University of Virginia in the Master of Public Safety Program.

Let me digress for just a moment before continuing my comments about aviation tragedies and what we can learn from studying them. I had the opportunity to do a Lexipol webinar with Dr. Kern a few years ago, and during the preparation for this event I told him, “You are the smartest person I have ever met.” Over the decades I have met a lot of very smart people, but Dr. Kern is truly at the top of my list. His response to my comment was very quick: “I don’t know if that is true, but I do know I am intensely curious.”

That made me think. First it is a demonstration of his being humble – which is an admirable trait. Second, it made me wonder: Is there a link between being curious and being smart? I have never considered myself to be all that “smart,” but I too am very, very curious – and that drives some people (including Mrs. G.) nuts!

Why did Ford choose a “small e” for the name of their new division focusing on electric vehicles? Why did Elon Musk name his cars “Y” and then “S” and then “X” and then the number “3”? Why did Ford not continue with the success of the name “GT-40” when they recreated this famous racecar in the early 2000s (it won four consecutive years in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – including the historic 1-2-3 placing in 1966) – and instead named it the GT? (The answers to all these important questions are at the end of this article.)

Hanging from the ceiling of one of the display areas of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is an ancient plane with “Vin Fiz” painted on the bottom of the wings. On a visit to the museum a few years ago, my brain defaulted to my “tremendous” knowledge of the “dead” language known as Latin. But somehow “wine fertile” didn’t add up for the name of an airplane. So, my mind jumped to that famous line near the beginning of the first Dirty Harry movie in 1971 (I watched some of the filming when I worked at Swensen’s Ice Cream while at San Francisco State College). Harry shoots the armed robbery suspect and is pointing is .44 Magnum at him wondering if he fired five or six shots, and the wounded suspect says, “I got to know.” That was my line as I looked at the Vin Fiz – “I got to know.”

Well, here is what I learned – and what a fascinating piece of Americana this is, involving William Randolph Hearst, Armour and Company of Chicago, and a daredevil motorcycle rider named Cal Rodgers – all this happening in 1911. As you know I am limited on words in these writings, but a search for “flight of the Vin Fiz” will fill in all the blanks in my recital of this wonderful piece of history.

Curiosity is essential to risk management. Only by being curious did I discover the story of the Vin Fiz.

Mr. Hearst was the first bi-coastal businessman in the U.S. While Ford lived, worked and played in Michigan, and Carnegie lived, worked and played in New York, and DuPont lived, worked and played in Delaware, Hearst had homes and businesses on both coasts – and he believed in “hands on management” so he travelled back and forth. Airlines were nonexistent in 1911 – it was only eight years earlier that Wilbur and Oroville got things moving in aviation – so Hearst travelled by train from New York to California. Even the fastest train took several days to cross the nation. Hearst, being a visionary, said to himself, “They are going to make these planes bigger, faster, stronger – and someday they will put seats in them, and someday they will have paying passengers and there will be airlines and they will need airports and we will put a big one in New York and a big one in San Francisco – and they will have to refuel halfway across the nation – so we will put a big one in Chicago and they will call it O’Hare (another fascinating piece of Americana – who was O’Hare?) and there will be delays in Chicago 24/7/365 and” … well, you know the rest of the story.

WRH wanted to speed things up, so like Ferdinand and Isabella did for Columbus, he put a prize on the table: “First person who can fly cross-country in 30 days in an airplane gets $50,000.” That was a huge amount of money back then. This brings us to Calbraith Perry Rodgers. Part of a family with a long military history, he was a “daredevil” with experience in racing cars and boats. He was also a novice pilot. “All I have to do is fly a plane cross-country in 30 days and I get $50K – I can do that.” But he had a problem: He needed a plane.

Cal (like the later Cal Worthington – and there is another piece of Americana – his last car dealership was sold last year and if you are curious you will read all about him) had a plan. He went to Armour and Company (which was developing a new drink called the Vin Fiz) and convinced them he had a plan for national advertising of their new product: “If you support me financially I will call it the Vin Fiz and wherever I land to fuel up there will be a crowd of people and the Hearst News Corporation – and I will tell people to drink Vin Fiz.” (Probably not the exact quote but you get my drift on this.) Amour and Company agreed, and they gave Cal a used airplane (a Wright Brothers Pusher Bi-Plane model EX with 35 horsepower). With great fanfare he took off from Sheepshead Bay in Long Island on September 17 with the goal of getting to California in 30 days. Sadly, he did not make it … in 30 days! It took him 49 days to get to California with some 75 stops and at least (the number varies) 16 crashes en route!

We are closing in on the end of this rambling – so what is my point? First, that curiosity is essential to risk management. Only by being curious did I discover the story of the Vin Fiz. Second, since that very first cross-country flight in 1911, THERE ARE NO NEW WAYS TO CRASH A PLANE. Every possible permutation on how to crash a plane occurred on that very first cross-country flight. He ran out of fuel, he hit fixed objects, parts fell off his plane, he was carrying too much weight, he hit bad weather and had visibility issues – and sadly, shortly after he touched down in California on November 5 – he ran into a flock of birds (just like Sullenberger) and died in that crash.

I wrap up all my live programs with the three basic rules of risk management. Rule One is this – There are no new ways to get in trouble. The errors you are going to make can be predicted from the errors already made. Planes have figured out no new ways to crash, restaurants have figured out no new ways to poison people, mines have figured out no new ways to collapse, ships have figured out no new ways to sink – and public safety personnel have not figured out any new ways to get in trouble. We keep on making the same mistakes over and over and over again!

As I continue with these articles, please keep Rule One in mind. I like to learn from tragedies in other high-risk industries, and aviation is one of my favorite professions to study, because they have truly figured this out. The safety record of aviation (particularly in America) is excellent because they continue to learn from past errors. The “learning management system” in the aviation world is much more robust than what we have in law enforcement – and that will be my focus in my next writing.

Until then keep reading and learning – keep cultivating curiosity – and be safe.

Why did Ford choose a “small e” for the name of their new division focusing on electric vehicles?
After multiple phone calls to Ford, I finally found a young fellow who told me the small “e” was in homage to Albert Einstein and his famous formula e=mc2. But when I went to fact-check that, I discovered many sources use a capital E when writing this classic equation. So I am still in a quandary over this question.

Why did Elon Musk name his cars “Y” and then “S” and then “X” and then the number “3”?
While I have not spoken to Mr. Musk directly (although I do have a call to him awaiting a response) his staff told me that Ford Motor Company had the trademark for the capital “E” (used in conjunction with Model) and they refused to allow Tesla to use it. So he played around with the number “3” to make it look like an “E.” He was trying to spell S-E-X-Y so instead got S-3-X-Y. But when you have a couple of hundred billion dollars lying around you can pretty much spell words whatever way you like.

Why did Ford not continue with the success of the name “GT-40” when they recreated this famous racecar in the early 2000s?
Another trademark issue: After the success of the GT-40 in the 60s, Ford failed to protect the name with a trademark. Another company (Safir Engineering) was building replica Ford GT-40s and they trademarked it. Ford was unable to negotiate a deal to use GT-40. Some trivia for you: The 40 represented the height of the car (although it was actually 40.5 inches) that was built in the 60s. The newer version was about 4 inches taller, so they just went with GT.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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