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A Navy officer’s botched repair

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

As a 26-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant, Robert Wray was assigned to an important mission on the USS Omaha submarine. At sea, the crew discovered a leak in a complex piece of equipment called the accumulator (part of the hydraulic power system).

Upon analyzing the leak, Wray determined that he could mobilize his team to repair it at sea.

After 30 hours of stressful work in cramped surroundings—disassembling the accumulator and then reassembling it—Wray and his team found it leaked worse than ever.

“This was without a doubt the hardest report I had ever brought to my ­captain in my still-new submarine career,” recalls Wray, 56, who rose to become a rear admiral and then left the Navy to launch a successful private-sector career. “My own sense of personal guilt was nearly intolerable.”

Reviewing the system drawings to figure out what went wrong, Wray remembered something he heard a few months earlier: The yeoman who up­­dated the ship’s drawings was behind in updating the files.

On a hunch, Wray checked the sub’s microfiche index and found that the plans his team followed to do the repairs were outdated. He printed out the new drawings and realized they had used the wrong seal on the accumulator.

As the division officer, Wray knew it was his fault that they installed the wrong part. In retrospect, he concluded that he was so intent on “hanging” with his me­­chanics that he neglected to do what he calls “the officer stuff” such as confirming they were using the right drawings.

— Adapted from Saltwater Leadership, Robert Wray, Jr., Naval Institute Press.

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