The day I passed the flight test and earned my private pilot’s license more than 20 years ago, I was a safe and competent aviator, but not yet a good one. That would come a few years later, after I became a flight instructor and logged a few thousand hours teaching rookie flyers how to land in stiff crosswinds, navigate by instruments in dismal weather, and prepare for in-flight emergencies.
Watching my students struggle and learn, I came to appreciate how much talent and hard work matter. But when it’s just you and your craft at 5,000 feet, what matters most is experience, especially when the weather turns inclement or the engine goes quiet. You can be a whiz at aerodynamics and know your equipment like an engineer, but it’s how you react when everything goes wrong that shows what kind of pilot you really are.
Business leaders face down everything from PR headaches to financial crises, and sometimes even threats to health and human life within their organizations. You can bring your A game to the boardroom and know your industry inside and out, but if you’ve never handled a major emergency, it’s hard to know how well you’ll fare when your first one hits.
That’s why pilots are trained in crisis management. We’re taught to think through a range of potential mishaps, memorize checklists, and plot courses of action in advance. Executives can do the same. You can never foresee every crisis, but if you plan for the worst, you’ll be ready for action–and you won’t be stuck winging it.
As I descended toward the runway in my instructor Volker’s twin Apache one night, I noticed something troubling: The green nose-wheel light wasn’t illuminating.
Seated beside me, Volker didn’t panic. For the next hour, he calmly proceeded with the flight lesson. We reviewed gear-failure procedures and tried to force the nose wheel to lock down. When that failed, we turned toward Nashville’s international airport and declared an emergency.
The final moments of that flight were strangely lovely–the flash of fire truck lights, sparks shooting by as we touched down and the nose cone ground a line down the runway centerline.
My instructor had performed a masterful emergency landing. We slid down the wing, not even a scratch. I was in awe of him. Throughout the “lesson,” I’d followed his lead. He appeared confident and unruffled, so I concluded that this situation called for deliberate action, not for fear. And because we had practiced the procedures for a gear failure emergency so many times, we knew just what to do when it actually happened.
Most organizations don’t like to dwell on negative eventualities. But imagine the alternative: Your VP’s thoughtless tweet goes viral; there’s a hostile takeover on the horizon; or far worse, the firm’s container ship sinks–and you have no idea what to do next.
As a company leader, people look to you in a crisis. It’s your responsibility to keep calm and lead, but that’s never entirely a matter of gut instinct. It takes rational forethought. Think through possible emergency situations and make a checklist for the first few steps you’d take. Those first steps can quiet your mind enough to get it busy solving the problem. If you have a plan, you’ll know what to do. And knowing what to do keeps fear and paralysis at bay.
Several years later, I had my turn at the helm during an emergency. As my student flew us back to our home airport one afternoon, my Cessna 172’s engine went down about 12 miles out. We’d thrown a valve and were running on partial power. My heart rate accelerated to match the irregular churn of the wounded engine, but my mind stayed quiet. “I’ve got the plane,” I told my student. We declared an emergency and turned toward the nearest airport.
The engine carried us there, unhurt and–at least in my student’s case–unruffled. He told me later he hadn’t felt afraid. “You had control of the situation,” he said.
He’d been watching me for cues. Because I didn’t seem frightened, he’d felt safe. Of course I was on edge, and for good reason. But I had a checklist to turn to and two people’s safety to look out for. There was no time for panic.
To most people, “fake it till you make it” means feigning competence until you’ve actually gained it. But overconfidence is almost never useful, especially in an emergency. Instead, confidence should equal ability. Pretending to know what you’re doing to fool your colleagues and employees into thinking you’ve got it under control won’t help you manage the problem. But if you do know what you’re doing, pretending you aren’t afraid can help see you it through with a steady hand.
I once took a two-day spin-training course with a well-known aerobatics instructor. The first time we stalled and spun his little Cessna 152, my stomach lurched. As the sky disappeared and farm fields rotated in the windshield, my brain went into chaos mode. But by the end of the course, I could calmly count the number of turns as we spun, and I’d even started to enjoy the ride.
I’m neither an especially calm person nor a thrill-seeker. But what helped me keep my cool as the altimeter spiraled down was the knowledge of what was coming. The instructor had prepared me for how we would enter the spin, what the instruments would read while we spun, and how we’d recover. After a few practice runs, I actually felt more curious than queasy.
It’s not that pilots are born preternaturally calm in the face of danger; it’s that we review emergency procedures so many times that they come to seem almost routine. Pilots don’t like surprises, but we learn to be ready for them.
Most of the time, flying isn’t nearly as exciting as people think. That’s why, during the routine, blue-sky moments when the engine thrums with health, a good pilot is busy planning what might happen within the next hundred miles or before reaching the destination–and imagining what she’d do, just in case something goes wrong.
Kim Green is a writer, public radio producer, and pilot in Nashville, Tennessee. She was editor and co-translator of Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front.