On 18 April 2018, Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 was passing 32,500 feet altitude, bound for Dallas from New York. Passengers heard and felt a large explosion, a sudden depressurization, and rapid turn and descent. A passenger was sucked half-way out of a blown-out window, severely injured from explosion shrapnel. In the chaos, the aircrew managed to calm the situation, quickly and safely landing the aircraft in an emergency stop at Philadelphia. In the immediate aftermath of this event, I offer the following three observations that provide lessons for our own improvement. Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section.
1. Checklist Discipline Cultures Save Lives
The calm, collected reaction of the aircrew comes from a disciplined, checklist culture that doesn’t just happen on its own or overnight. The checklists covered the basics of engine failure, rapid depressurization, and structural damage. But checklists aren’t to be automatically followed while the mind is switched off. On the contrary, they provide confidence and efficiency that frees the minds of the pilot team to creatively deal with all the unforeseeable details, especially the human component. The aviation industry has taken many decades to reach their 99.9999997% safety record culture in which pilot Tammie Jo Shults performed so heroically. The industry has done so by enforcing checklist discipline, but also training crews to work together and engage their minds through a process called Crew Resource Management (CRM).
Reliance on checklist and crew coordination, with engaged mind, allowed Captain “Sully” Sullivan to adapt to dual engine failure and land his powerless plane in the Hudson River safely. In the video below, notice the dialogue going on between Captain Sullivan and First Officer Skiles in the blue and yellow boxes bottom center. They had never flown as a team before, but in the face of disaster, following prescribed procedures allowed them to focus on the critical items, so Captain Sullivan could devote mental effort to making the tough decision to land in the river. The same culture of operational discipline can be created in other organizations–but it takes time and commitment. One company successfully driving such change in organizations is Check-6.
2. We’re Not Very Good at Estimating Risk
Cognitive bias causes us to vastly overestimate the risk of events that are dramatic and visible. Though terrible for the deceased mother, it’s extremely rare for a jet engine to disintegrate and throw debris that injures a person. On the other hand, 500 people died & 39,000 were injured in a 4-year period on US roads simply due to debris in the road.
The Availability mental shortcut (known as a heuristic) is the tendency to make decisions based on how easy it is to recall relevant data. This includes giving more weight to the most recent or vivid memories. Behavioral economists have also found that because we fear loss at least twice as much as we desire gain, we give more weight to very low probability event than we should when we make decisions. This is great for selling those flight insurance add-ons that pop up when we reserve plane tickets…but most people should just save their money!
3. Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
Ignorance leads to panic. Knowing how aircraft are designed for safety can help stay reasonable. Turbofan engines hang from a pylon under the wing, which keeps the plane safe even with a raging engine fire.
The above pictures show how turbofan engines hang from the pylon. Even with a catastrophic engine failure, because the engine is separated from the body of the plane, damage is minimized. This Air France Airbus A380 incident in September 2017 landed safely after this happened over Greenland. Understanding the safety features of aircraft can help calm nerves about flying.
In another unnecessarily scary situation, the procedure for depressurization is to immediately descend, which some passengers took as the aircraft “going down.” Not understanding what was going on with the aircraft, passengers were assuming the worst, saying their prayers and expecting to die, when in fact the situation was very much under control. Knowledge leads to calmness.
We deal with life more easily when we practice disciplined mindfulness, recognize our biases, and continually seek knowledge.
Soft Power Skills Academy workshops include exploring cognitive biases and ways to increase our knowledge of human skills. Take a look at our website to see how the workshops can benefit you.