Monday, February 16, 2009
This weekend, our momentary celebration of aviation survival was shattered by the terrible crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407.
Captain Sully (Chesley Sullenberger) became a reluctant folk hero these past couple of weeks for his cool demeanor and professionalism when crisis struck his US Air Airbus A320 over New York. Some one hundred and fifty souls walked away from the aircraft bobbing on the surface of the Hudson River, and we rejoice with the survivors and the whole nation for that matter.
Some reporters referred to the passengers as “souls.” It’s a traditional term used to describe passengers (as far back as those tall ships) and while it’s a throwback to an earlier time, it fits. Those people on board are more than a list on a page – the manifest. These are individuals each with a name and a story and a network of relationships. To call them “souls” is also to imply that their identity transcends the physical body they occupy and that there is a destiny that transcends life as we know it caught in this timeline of days and minutes and seconds, as we seem to be.
Captain and crew made the media rounds. (Does someone set up these tours from TODAY to LARRY KING to GOOD MORNING AMERICA to LETTERMAN?) Sully handled the predictable “are you a hero?” question with panache. He found that balance between genuine humility and open accessibility. It allowed people to express their gratitude; which they all really wanted to do.
But on a bitter, cold, wet Friday the 13th night, the terrible flames emanating from a little house on a residential street in Clarence Center, New York, five miles from Buffalo, broke the spell. YouTube provided us with both the visuals and the sound track with an immediacy we’ve come to expect. Terrified neighbors cried out in horror as the twin engine, seventy-four passenger Q400 Bombardier fell from the sky like a meteor. Forty-nine souls on board. One person in a seemingly random house, perhaps watching television, would never know the terrifying story that ended his life in an explosive split second.
Icing is a pilot’s worst nightmare. As an aspiring pilot since boyhood, I can still remember studying the awful problem of ice on the wings. Pilots need to know how and when it happens and what to do if anything at all can be done. The biggest problem with icing is this: once it starts, it’s nearly impossible to reverse. You are in big trouble. Really big trouble. The ice adds weight. The build up disturbs the critical element of lift in the wing’s precision design. Ice will take an otherwise fully functional aircraft, and cause it to drop like a rock.
A veteran private pilot from the North Country explained a device on the leading edge of the wing on his Beech Baron. He told the interviewer that ice is a common occurrence for any instrument rated pilot who flies in cold weather. It’s like a rubber bicycle inner tube, he said, running right down the length of the wing on both sides. If ice forms at altitude, he hits a switch and warm air inflates the tube ever so slightly. It doesn’t take much; but the expansion of the rubber on the wing breaks up the ice and the high-speed airflow blows it away in chunks. The build-up will recur, but the pilot repeats the procedure as often as necessary until he can get his airplane safely on the ground.
The Continental Q400 Bombardier was equipped with this device. I’m hesitant to call it pilot error. To my knowledge, no one has yet suggested it. But we know that the pilot and co-pilot saw ice forming on the windshield. We also know that they dropped the landing gear and flaps shortly after they made the observation of icing. The gear and flaps slowed the plane down. And within seconds – it stalled. From an altitude of perhaps three thousand feet, there was no time for recovery.
Did the pilot take the icing seriously enough? Did he/she follow proven procedures to deal with the clear and present danger? Could that on-board safety device have cleared those narrow wings of the ice that brought the plane down? The NTSB investigators will let us know in time. I hope I’m wrong.
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Patrick Lencioni’s little business book of fiction identifies “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” I wish I’d read the book a few years ago. They are interesting enough in themselves (Absence of Trust; Fear of Conflict; Lack of Commitment; Avoidance of Accountability; and Inattention to Results). But for Lencioni, foundational to all five is what I’ll simply call the unwillingness to engage crisis.
Even if a team meets regularly, without trust, commitment, accountability and intentionality, a crisis can be a clear and present danger. And also be ignored.
Healthy teams engage. Healthy teams communicate. Healthy teams assist each other and work together to accomplish great things.
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. You are part of a team. Perhaps you lead a team.
When the cold blows in from the north, and the sleet sweeps across the wings and a threatening build up of ice forms on the leading edge, it’s your cue to call a time out from business as usual. Call off the scheduled landing. Rethink priorities.
And hit the emergency switch.
Souls hang in the balance.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009