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Business Lesson #1 Learned from the Cockpit


Being an executive leader requires learning lessons from not just personal experiences but also from other sources.  Sometimes life lessons are the most real!  Here is a business lesson learned by observing a professional pilot – business lesson #1 learned from the cockpit!

On January 15, 2009, passengers had just been given the routine emergency preparedness demonstration by the flight attendants.  The crew was waiting for permission to take off from LaGuardia Airport.  US Airways Flight 1549 was heading to North Carolina. Permission was granted and the takeoff was fairly routine.  And then it happened – the airplane and the flock of migrating geese tried to share the same airspace.  Geese ended up in the engines, and Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger found himself landing on the Hudson River.  It was the perfect landing.  The plane sat on top of the water as though it was a new kind of boat. The plane did not take on water until one hysterical passenger bodily removed the flight attendant and opened the hatch. Water began coming in to the plane from the opened back door; however, all 150 passengers and 5 crew members were successfully evacuated via boats and rafts.  I’m sure it was an incredible sight to see!  Oddly enough, this same type accident occurred in January 1982, but unfortunately only five passengers survived that accident.  So what was different for Captain Sully and this crew?

The crew of US Airways Flight 1549 made the television talk show circuit.  David Letterman appeared genuinely in awe of the crew.  When they appeared on the late night show, the crew had not yet returned to the air.  Everyone knew they would fly again except for one of the flight attendants.  She admitted that after 20+ years of flying that this may have been her last flight.  This set of heroes all agreed that they were just doing their job.  They were trained professionals.  It was a fact for them; nothing more or less.

David Letterman questioned Captain Sully as to his technique for landing on water.  Captain Sully was very modest and politely explained that, as a pilot, he had prepared for possible emergencies.  He had practiced his emergency landings on various fields, as well as stalls, turns, and navigation emergencies.  He was an experienced pilot with practice and preparation under his belt. According to Captain Sully, he was just doing his job.  Captain Sully was the executive leader in charge of the plane.

I remember when I was introduced to the thrill of flying a small private plane.  That little plane was an expensive hobby but allowed me to get in the clouds and experience things that aren’t possible with your feet on the ground.  I learned that clouds have caverns inside with many spectrums of color.  I still remember my first drill when the engine was stalled in the air and my stomach was in my throat!  Pilots learn to fly the plane no matter what the circumstances.  No matter what – you fly the plane.  For Captain Sully, he immediately engaged his hours and hours of preparation during an emergency situation.  He flew the plane no matter what.  He flew the plane even though geese had stalled the engines.  He flew the plane even though his landing field was a body of water.  He flew the plane even though he had 150 passengers and 4 crew members under his responsibility.  He flew the plane.  He landed the plane – on water.

Business Application

Some executive leaders get caught up in operations assessments and fail to keep the big picture in mind.  Corporate America has bastardized the strategic planning process by making it into an annual exercise rather than a process of business.  Just like Captain Sully scheduled drills into his monthly flying time, an executive leader should spend time monthly looking at the overall business.  We recommend our clients schedule a monthly appointment with their executive staff to review their business from a 20,000 foot view.  Objective questions should be asked that the financial statements and executive leadership should be able to answer.  Why are we doing this? Who are our clients? How is the staff?  What are the projections for this time next month?  What roadblocks can we anticipate? What processes need reviewing? What technology do we need? How is data security?

The questions will change each month.  They are always based on what the strategic planning process identified in advance.  The planning process is more than just a document and annual exercise.  Sometimes it is this monthly review process that may just save your organization’s life.  Will you be prepared in such an emergency?


1 Comment

  • Dave BRough December 24, 2010 at 8:51 am

    “Captain Sully was an experienced pilot with practice and preparation under his belt. According to Captain Sully, he was just doing his job.”
    If Captain Sully was “just doing his job”, he wouldn’t have been gawking “the beautiful view of the Hudson”. Especially in one of the busiest air corridors in the world. He would have practiced the first thing you were taught in your private training: “See and avoid”. If he had been ‘seeing’, he would have seen those geese two miles ahead and nudged the aircraft out of the way. If he really had ‘practice and preparation under his belt”, he would have done everything different. And I mean everything! For starters, he would have declared an emergency. He did not. He would have used the emergency frequency. He did not. He would have immediately returned to LGA (and landed). He did not. He would then have landed at Tetorboro. He did not. He would have turned into the wind. He turned downwind. He would have used full flaps. He did not (which is why the whole aft end of the aircraft was torn open). He would have advised his crew and pax to “prepare for a WATER landing”. He did not. He would have advised ‘Don’t open the doors: wing exits only!”. He did not. And once down and in the pandemonium of the river, he would have used his cell to call 911 and advise of the situation. He called his wife.
    When the feathers settle in this one, he’ll be lucky not to be facing criminal charges of reckless endangerment.

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