by Frank Burroughs

Despite the best planning and skill, pilots sometimes find themselves in a difficult situation.  Circumstances that were not planned for may arise.  Conditions that require more skill or capability than pilot or aircraft possess generate the need to seek help.  Unlike your automobile, a pilot cannot simply pull over and call AAA on the cell phone.  So where does help come from then?  There are usually many excellent resources to help a pilot in trouble, but research shows that the biggest barrier is not availability rather the pilot’s unwillingness to ask for help.  In most emergencies or accidents it was learned that the pilot kept to his plan (see Chapter Two) despite the plan not working well.  Whether it is ego or fear of doing something different and unplanned, there is a big barrier in aviation to asking for help.  Sometimes you can easily help yourself if you are simply willing to. 

Another aviation memory device used in this part of training is the “Four Cs”:  Climb-Communicate-Confess-Comply.  When you are lost, running low on fuel, flying into weather that you or your plane are not able to handle or any number of other challenges the plan is to climb, communicate, confess and comply.  First climb because higher altitudes give you more perspective.  You may see a landmark such as a city or river that orients you and allows to get back on course, or at least tell someone where you are.  Thus merely climbing may alleviate your problem and negate moving to the other Cs.  Gaining perspective is important.  Climbing also increases the range of your radios so that the chance of being heard by those who can help increases.  Second the plan calls for communication.  Generally this will be with the nearest appropriate ATC facility, usually Approach/Departure at the nearest radar equipped airport.  These resources will be able to help in a number of ways such as telling where you are, how to get around weather, guiding you to a nearby airport for fuel or repairs, etc.  But to do that requires the third C.  You must “confess” that you are lost or flew into weather you should not have.  As strange as it may sound this is hard to do.  As mentioned above, the ego is a big barrier.  No one who envisions herself as a competent, professional pilot wants to admit to anyone, let alone over the airwaves, that she made a mistake or miscalculation, or simply got lost.  But confess you must if ATC is to be of any assistance.  Finally you comply with the instructions given. Why wouldn’t you?  If you are lost and someone is telling you how to get home of course you would comply.  That is probably the easiest part because the ego has already taken its hit from confessing.  However, there are cases where the instructions don’t make sense to a pilot who is disoriented.  It may seem that ATC is flying you the wrong way.  Becoming disoriented, especially under stress is a common problem, but at this point you must trust those you have asked for help. 

There are many syndromes to which pilots are especially susceptible.  One of them is “get-there-itis”.  The desire to complete the mission on time and prove our abilities and not disappoint those we are flying is a powerful incentive to violate a principle.  I am ashamed to say that even this early in my flying career I have fallen into this syndrome and I knew I was doing it!  This short story illustrates almost every failure mode in the previous chapters as well as “get-there-itis”. 

In the final stages of training before you attempt the FAA Practical exam (which means you fly maneuvers with an FAA designated examiner if you pass the oral exam earlier in the day), you must complete what is called the “long cross country”.  It does not mean you fly coast to coast.  In the vernacular it simply means flights longer than 50 nautical miles that land at a different airport than they originated.  Specifically the “long cross country” involves flying to two different airports and thenreturning to your original departure point.  This is all carefully planned down to minute and gallon of fuel.  I did all the preflight planning twice to make sure I had not missed anything and then reviewed it with my instructor who said it was fine.  Since this involves essentially flying a big triangle you are going to encounter different winds on each leg.  I received a full weather briefing from Flight Service as I built my plan so I could account for fuel burns with tailwinds on one leg and headwinds on the last one.  Then I checked with Flight Service again just prior to departure to see if conditions en route had changed.  According to all my calculations I had sufficient fuel to make the entire trip plus the legally mandated reserve. 

The first leg went well until I was setting up my entry into the landing pattern based on the reported winds a few miles out.  I called my entry and landing intentions on the radio and to my surprise a voice replied that I needed to reconsider my landing direction as the winds had completely reversed since I listened to the weather a few miles back.  An attendant at the local airport was kind enough to tell me that, as there we no other pilots in the vicinity.  As I was already setting up for the planned direction I had to rapidly rethink my approach and make changes.  Luckily I had been into that airport before and knew what landing the other direction felt like.  I changed my entry and landed easily but not in the direction I planned.  I was proud of myself for “Planning then Adapting”.  I also learned that valuable information can come from anywhere.  Use it!  On the ground I rechecked the navigation plans to my next destination and also recalled that significant turbulence had been reported at my planned altitude on the route I would fly.  That really didn’t worry me as those reports don’t always turn into reality.  Plus it shouldn’t last long.  I departed the first airport under perfect conditions and brimming with confidence. 

The second leg went as planned and the turbulence was waiting for me just where the reports had said it would.  It was much worse than I assumed it would be and made it hard to fly straight and level so I didn’t.  Training had taught me not to try to fight the turbulence as that leads to lots of control inputs that ultimately are futile.  The idea is simply to keep the nose approximately level and fly through it.  Then correct your course if needed.  I followed that training and, besides feeling a little sick, finally saw my destination airport off the nose right where it should have been.  This airport had multiple runways so selecting the best one for the wind was easy and I landed softly.  So far, so good.  Two legs and two opportunities to put my training into practice successfully!  I was getting a bit fatigued as it had been a long and trying day, but I had the final leg to complete and I knew the forecast called for a headwind so it would be slow flying.  That last sentence is filled with messages I should have heeded at the time.  Being fatigued I wasn’t thinking about anything except completing the last leg (“get-there-itis”) and because I had planned everything carefully I didn’t see any reason to stop and get any perspective on the situation.  My plan said I had enough fuel so why check?  I didn’t.  The weather forecast predicted headwinds and I had calculated that into my fuel requirements.  So I taxied back to the end of the runway and took off. 

Taking off into a stiff headwind made the plane jump off the runway which felt good.  What didn’t feel good was trying to get any groundspeed and make progress toward my home airport.  The headwinds were about twice what was predicted, and had I checked that while on the ground a few minutes ago I could have realized that I was going to burn more fuel that I had onboard.  But I didn’t.  I also did not turn back and get fuel.  Get-there-itis had me in its grip.  Plus I was sure the winds would subside en route as the forecast had said.  This was just a temporary condition. Watching the fuel gauges drop rapidly while the ground below seemed to stand still pushed get-there-itis to the background for at least a few moments.  Training kicked in again and I realized I had planned for problems by having airports to divert to identified along my route.  I even knew which ones sold fuel.  Now I just needed to select one and land.  Easy, except once I knew that there was a way out get-there-it-is appeared again.  As the alternate airport appeared ahead of the left wing just seven miles away, I also could see familiar landmarks near my final destination only twenty miles away.  Looking back and forth between fuel gauges and fuel supplies and home created a three way tug of war that with each passing minute made me more certain I could make it.  I also began calculating my glide distance should the engine quit.  Once I reached a distance where I knew I could glide in I focused on approaching to land if I was powered or not.  Once I entered the landing pattern under power I knew everything would be fine.  I even had enough fuel to taxi to the hangar.  Once there I actually looked inside the wing tanks and saw metal not liquid, meaning I literally had made it on fumes.  Certainly not legal, and certainly not safe, and absolutely avoidable.  In fact it was avoidable at several points.  My planning was good but my adapting was not.  Even when adapting was considered there was no follow through on the new plan.  Knowing what to do but failing to act results in the same outcome as not knowing.  Looking back, I clearly should have checked the winds before taking off on the final leg.  When I realized what the winds were I should have turned back and fueled.  When I selected an alternate airport to fuel I should have committed to land there instead of just identifying the possibility.  Instead I stupidly thought that calculating glide distance made more sense!  I didn’t even need the Four Cs because I knew where I was and how to respond….. I just didn’t.  Even good planning and knowing how to adapt to changes in reality won’t help if you are too stubborn or stupid to do anything different. 

The application to our leadership of the concept of using Plan then Adapt when Dealing with Difficulty   is likely straightforward following this sad story.  But let’s look again at the Four Cs applied to leaders in difficult situations.  As in my story, the first idea is to see if you can adapt and not need to use the Four Cs.  If you can adapt your original plan, then commit firmly to act on the new one.  Being alone in the cockpit made this difficult.  Had there been someone with me I am certain I would have explained to them the situation and what we needed to do, and then done it.  So, find a way to make a commitment to act on your adaptation and then follow through.  Having done that, if you are still in trouble then Climb.  Remember one of the main reasons for climbing was to gain perspective and see if things look different from a higher altitude.  The same principle works for leaders.  Get above the current problem and circumstances and see if a new perspective brings a new path forward.  Sometimes you can do this on your own but often climbing means seeking perspective from others.  Many times a higher level question is exactly what is needed to get perspective.  At a low level we may ask the wrong question or be focused on the wrong goal.  Maybe we need to ask, “What am I really trying to accomplish here?”  Using my story I defined success incorrectly as getting home on one tank of fuel or getting home on time.  The day did not start with those as goals.  It started with safely completing the three legs. Where did I lose that fundamental idea?  The same place most leaders lose their fundamental idea:  in something that seems more urgent or attractive and feels more important than the real goal.  This is why getting higher for perspective is so critical. 

Communicate may be a natural next step from Climb, as mentioned above.  Ask others for their perspective or to check and challenge yours.  After you have worked through the problem and have a new plan, Communicate can also be part of making a public commitment to do something different.  Making your adaptation go from a possibility (as I had done) to a new plan that will be executed may require others knowing about it and helping you stay accountable to follow through.  Often the new plan and its execution will involve others and it’s more than just a courtesy to let them know something is changing.  This is especially true if you will need their help to execute the new plan.  In Chapter Two it was noted that strategic changes may not be frequent, but they should be known and noticed by many.  Chapter Three is a good reminder that communicating a change in strategy needs to be both precise and concise, unlike most strategy documents. 

Confessing is a word with connotations that are not helpful.  The root meanings of the word are simply “agreeing together”.  Taken that way we simply want to gain agreement about the situation.  If a pilot “confesses” to ATC it isn’t for the purposes of being chastised.  Rather it is agreeing with ATC that you are lost and getting ATC as much information about your situation as you have.  So it’s telling the whole truth for the purpose of getting home safely!  When a leader loses her way, she needs to regain perspective on what the real purpose is (Climb) then agree together with resources that can help her achieve that purpose by guiding her out of her situation.  Simplified, it is just asking for help as you explain your situation.  But as with pilots, leaders are sometimes trapped by an ego that makes this very hard to do.  Many books and articles have been written in the past two decades that essentially put forward the idea that the single biggest failure mode for leaders is self-interest that is out of balance with the interests of the organization’s mission or of other people.  Behind self-interest is the ego.  It is not possible, or even healthy, to eliminate self-interest but it needs to be in proper relationship to the interests the leader is called to serve.  Many problems a leader faces are made worse because of the unwillingness to ask for help by agreeing together. Confession is good for the soul but it’s essential for a pilot in trouble or a leader who has lost her way.

Compliance is also a word that many find distasteful.  No adult wants to be told what to do.  In modern western culture independence is valued over compliance.   Once again the ego may get in the way.  It’s probably easier to comply when your life is truly on the line.  Lost in the clouds at night it is easy to get your ego out of the way and fly the heading you are told.  In business it may be tougher to feel that same sense of urgency and set aside what you think or feel and do what someone else tells you.  And in reality the business world seldom tells you what to do, so compliance in this realm really means being able to accept the suggestions of others and implement them even if you must repudiate your previous position.  That does require putting your pride aside and being humble enough to put achieving the goal ahead of your ego.  As in many endeavors it is true that you need to be humble or you will get humbled.  Humility is yet another word that isn’t very popular and that’s a shame because it is mostly misunderstood from a leadership perspective.  Humility in a leader does not mean someone who is weak or unwilling to take a stand and it certainly cannot mean acting as a “doormat”.  It is simply the opposite of overwhelming self-interest.  The great English writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis, said it best when he wrote that “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”  A leader whose first instinct in good times or bad is to consider the impact on others before themselves is a leader who has self-interest under control. 

So, there are the Four Cs for dealing with difficult situations. In short:

Climb-get above the immediate situation and gain perspective

Communicate-ask others for help

Confess-agree together about the reality of the situation and your part in it

Comply-have the humility and courage to do something different

The leader’s attitude toward even seeing a problem, then acting with humility to solve it is more important than any of the Cs.  In fact, without that attitude none of the Cs will work.

Would these tools and guidelines help in any of the difficulties you face day-to-day? Or do you have your own ways of coping with difficult situations?