The Leadership Lesson I Learned Waiting for My Flight to Crash Land
What could the guy next to me possibly be thinking? We were both on the same American Airlines flight. And it was doomed.
The flight, which took off on a grey afternoon from Buffalo, New York, was headed to Philadelphia. It was just a short flight and for the most part conditions were fine. I was in Buffalo for a business trip and looking forward to getting home. The plane was one of those smaller regional jets typical for routes like this.
The guy next to me was an American Airlines pilot -- but relax, we weren't sitting in the cockpit. It was one of those times when pilots take empty seats to "jump" from one city to another in order to make their next assigned flight. He sat next to me a few minutes before the door closed and, after a quick greeting, he tipped his cap over his eyes and settled in for an off-duty snooze.
We took off.
You know when your plane takes off and you feel it go up and up and then you hear the little "bong" which indicates you're over 10,000 feet and then the flight attendant comes on to welcome you, remind you of the rules and tell you how to use the in-flight internet? Unfortunately, none of that happened. Within a few minutes of takeoff, I noticed something odd. The plane wasn't gaining altitude. It kind of hung around a few thousand feet off the ground. For a while.
My curiosity didn't last long. The pilot came on the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said in an even voice. "As you've probably noticed we haven't reached out cruising altitude. That's because we're having a problem with the landing gear."
"The landing gear," he continued. "Well...it hasn't come up all the way. We think it’s stuck but we can’t be entirely sure. So we're going to fly around for about 45 minutes so that we can..." (and this is the part no one wanted to hear) "...burn off some fuel before we go back to Buffalo and..." (he actually said this) "...attempt to land."
Interestingly, my fellow passengers seemed to take this horrific information in stride, although there was an obviously strained silence throughout the cabin during those 45 minutes. But what really caught my attention was the guy sitting next to me -- the jump pilot. He just kept napping. He showed absolutely no reaction whatsoever. And trust me -- I wasn't the only one watching the guy. Every set of eyes was on him. I'm assuming if he so much as frowned -- let alone reached for a parachute -- all hell would have broken loose. But no, he just kept quietly snoozing away.
As you've probably figured out by now, everything turned out fine. The plane landed without incident, albeit amidst a cluster of fire trucks and ambulances with their lights flashing on the runway. As we taxied back to the gate, the jump pilot next to me stirred and tapped me on the shoulder. Showing me his phone he said, "Hey, just wanted you to know that I got a message from the airline that this flight will be delayed two hours."
"Are you kidding?" I asked him. "That's what you're concerned about? We almost died! Were you even aware of what was going on here?"
He paused for a moment. And then he said this: "Sure, I was aware the whole time. And I guess I can tell you now: I was shitting myself."
I had no answer to that. But, after a minute or two of silence he turned back to me. "But one thing I've learned in this job,” he said with a wink. “You never let the people who are watching you see you sweat.”
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I hope to never have to have that kind of situation again. But, as someone who runs a company and employs people who are constantly watching me, I took the American Airlines pilot’s advice to heart. I know that other difficult challenges still lay ahead for my business. But, whatever those challenges are, I intend to behave like that pilot. My rule is that I will never let my people see me sweat either.