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A pilot’s guide to crisis management

A pilot’s guide to crisis management

Richard Whitby considers that navigating a plane and navigating a crisis may have quite a bit in common.

“Final check, then apply full power,” says the instructor. I’m hunched over the controls of the Cessna light aircraft, my palms sweating and my head full of figures. The pilot of a 747 couldn’t be concentrating any harder.

Final Check means a quick glance over the myriad dials in front of me to ensure that ‘temperatures and pressures’ are normal. Then it’s the Big White Numbers check which means making sure the runway number given by air traffic control matches the huge numbers painted on the runway in front of me – thereby ensuring I’m on the correct runway and not about to meander in front of a 737 on its way to Majorca.

Flying is all about logical planning, together with the training and flexibility to deal with any eventuality, which strikes me as the same set of skills you need for crisis management.

Aide memoire

Typically at the front of a good crisis plan is an aide memoire, which walks the team through all the appropriate steps needed to combat a crisis. Experienced crisis teams should know what to do just in the same way that experienced pilots know how to fly a plane – the aide memoire is there to keep everyone on track. When I’m flying and I forget a check, my instructor, who has a rather mordant sense of humour says, “that item’s there because someone’s crashed” which has the habit of bringing me back down to earth – so to speak.

This made me reflect that although there are countless things that could go wrong in the air, each one can be thought about on the ground and a plan created should it happen. Then you rehearse, with your instructor, so experience and flexibility can be applied when the going gets tough.

Back in the plane, I’m still on the ground and any mistake is probably limited to the embarrassment of crashing into the aerodrome Tea Room, because I forgot to check the brakes. But once airborne it is, literally, life and death. The tiny aircraft reaches take off speed and I see the ground drop away from me out of the front window (or, more usually, the side window because I’m not using the rudder correctly and we are ‘crabbing through the sky’).

Crisis scenario

A crisis scenario crosses my mind – what if he engine fails now? Well, I hope my training would kick-in: immediately configure the aircraft to give it maximum glide distance and select the smoothest field I can reach. And only then tell Air Traffic Control why I’ve deiced to head for a field of cabbages rather than the somewhat more compelling charms of Cambridge. Aviate – Navigate – Communicate – that’s the aviator’s mantra.

At work I often hear myself telling clients, “In a crisis, always have in mind what good looks like.” It’s what we call the ‘strategic intent’ which helps businesses focus on a desired outcome. If you don’t know what good looks like, how will you know when a crisis is over? Right now, good looks like a smooth landing at Cambridge airport and not dodging cabbages in a field in Bedfordshire.

Considering the amount of hours flown by commercial and recreational pilots, accidents are rare. But when they do occur the air accident investigators’ work is thorough. As crisis managers we can learn from their approach in finding the reason for an incident – a skill that has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years.

As in business, the roots of an air crash can often be traced back long before the event itself. Missed warning signs, sloppy procedures, poor communication, perhaps a decision made many hours or weeks earlier.

The plane may have fallen out of the sky because the pilot turned too sharply on final approach. At first glance it seems an unaccountable decision, but he may have been under pressure to land quickly because the weather was closing in – perhaps he had forgotten to check the weather forecast properly. Or his passengers were pressuring him not to divert to a different airfield because it was getting late and their cars were parked below. The chain of events may have begun early that morning when one of the golfing party brought more kit than expected and upset the careful ‘weight and balance’ calculations done before take-off.

But on this occasion all is well and I land safely at the airport and we head to the café for a soothing cup of tea. “Not bad today Richard, soon you’ll be doing it all by yourself, without me,” says my long-suffering instructor. Now that really is a scary prospect.