While most commercial pilots complete their careers without having to handle a major emergency, they are all required to demonstrate recovery procedures on a flight simulator at regular intervals. With some of the more extreme scenarios, this is the only way to practice these techniques safely.

In 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s Airbus jet had a sudden encounter with a flock of geese, just after take-off. Both engines failed. He was left with only one option – to ditch in New York’s Hudson River. The story was captured on Twitter and rapidly “went viral”. All 155 on board survived.

In a subsequent interview, Captain Sullenberger explained, “For 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. On January 15 the balance was sufficient to make a very large withdrawal.”

The video combines a reconstruction with the actual recording of the exchanges between Captain Sullenberger and the air traffic controller. Bear that in mind that pilots are trained to “Aviate (i.e. fly the aeroplane), Navigate & Communicate” in that order of priority and that in an emergency, there is even less time to communicate!

Flight simulators also reveal areas where there may be scope for improvement, either in terms of the skill or judgement of the crew, or the systems and procedures that they use. These can be just as safety-critical but are usually less news-worthy. An important part of this culture is to shift emphasis away from blame to one where pilots are encouraged to notify the authorities in strict confidence when an incident has taken place with safety implications. For airlines and manufacturers, this information is priceless. Ignoring incidents ensures accidents.

Shouldn’t this (and countless other examples) cause the business community to stop and think?

  • What if the accelerated experiential learning used in aviation was available for decision-makers in business?
  • What if you could run a virtual business in a realistic, competitive, simulated environment? With so few businesses start-ups surviving five years, the potential for improvement is massive.
  • What if - in addition to improved business survival rates - this also led to higher performance and productivity?
  • Why can’t unexpected events in business be handled with the same consumate professionalism that we see on a flight deck?

The business equivalent to an encounter with a flock of geese could be anything from an unexpected market downturn to a sudden exodus of customers after exaggerated press reports of disgruntled customers. By how much would the chances of survival for a business improve if those involved had already practised ways of handling such events in a simulation?

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