You Better Press the Button

I can’t imagine it happens too often, but a few years back the captain of a commercial airliner died mid-flight.   An announcement came over the PA: “If there’s a pilot on the airplane, please press the flight attendant call button.”   A vacationing Air Force pilot sitting in the cabin glanced over to his wife.

She turned to him and said, “You better press the button.”

A flight attendant escorted the Air Force pilot to the cockpit, where the pilot took the captain’s vacated seat. (None of the accounts mentioned where they put the expired captain.) The co-pilot who was flying the airplane asked the Air Force pilot what equipment he flew, and then she said, “Ok, you’ve got the com and follow my instructions.”

I have never been in the armed services, a fact of which I am not particularly proud, but I am fairly certain that military service teaches or at least reinforces one’s ability to take orders.   I also think that excelling in taking orders generally makes one better at giving them, although like most things, this gets complicated and only works sometimes.

The Air Force pilot who “stood in” for the expired pilot on an unfamiliar airplane would have been used to giving orders. But in this case, although he was a captain in the Air Force, the less experienced airliner co-pilot remained the pilot in command throughout the flight.   Although she was feted afterward for her performance under pressure, it should be no surprise that she did her job and did it well. When interviewed afterward, the Air Force pilot said the commercial co-pilot confidently, professionally and calmly flew the airplane—so much so he wished he could go flying with her again under better circumstances.

It all went smoothly.   The experienced Air Force pilot wasn’t familiar with the airplane, and the co-pilot of the commercial jet knew the airplane well.   It was “her airplane,” and she was in charge.   Following the incident, there were a couple of editorials that appeared in aviation magazines that questioned whether the fact that the co-pilot was honored for her alacrity was a subtle form of sexism.   If she were a male co-pilot would she have been praised, or would the seamless handling of the stressful situation be simply assumed?

I don’t know, because I tend to see sexism hiding under most rocks.   And yet, having your captain expire next to you instantly doubles the workload and adds just a bit of psychic stress to the moment.   It would be a troubling situation for anyone regardless of gender.   But still….

When I read about the incident, I was not only impressed with the co-pilot’s performance under unusual pressure, but I was also impressed with the Air Force captain’s, who placed himself in an unfamiliar cockpit in a stressful situation, although all he really did was handle the radios, which was second-nature to him.

What made the situation work so effectively, though, was that each pilot recognized the abilities and the roles of the other.   The Air Force captain, undoubtedly used to being in charge, happily followed the co-pilot’s orders.   It all reinforced my view that the best leaders tend to be good followers, and the best followers also tend to make good leaders.

As I mentioned in other posts, the attributes of good leaders are the same as the attributes of effective followers: flexibility, humility, commitment to the organization, the ability to think outside of the box and consult and collaborate with others.     It’s important to remember this, the next time a pilot expires in the seat next to you.



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