In the Event of Engine Failure… Keep Flying

On April 17, 2018 an engine failed on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. Because of the chaos in the cabin, Capt. Tammie Jo Shults and co-pilot Darren Ellison used hand signals to communicate as they decided how to land the plane.  In twenty minutes, the plane landed safely on the ground. Shults and Ellison’s actions saved 148 passengers’ lives.

Capt. Shults said, “It was a rough shudder; the whole thing was shaking. A lot.” After donning their oxygen masks and assessing the situation, she said “it was really just back to flying.”

“Aviate, communicate, navigate. In the Navy there’s a saying, whatever it takes.”

“As long as you have altitude and ideas you’re okay. We had both.”

(Original Dallas News story by Conor Shine is here:


“It was really just back to flying.”

There are times, as a leader, when you lose an engine.

  A key team member leaves suddenly for another opportunity.

An executive’s bad behavior is revealed and threatens the integrity of the brand.

Regulatory changes force an entire industry to change the way business is done.

Technical challenges delay a product launch.


But the very nature of leadership, and flying, requires us to address an engine failure while we keep the plane in the air. While significantly energy goes into addressing the crisis, you can’t put all of the energy into crisis management; you must keep flying the plane.

• Aviate: Maintain the fundamental tasks of daily operations.

• Communicate: Connect with decision-makers about real-time data and possible options.

• Navigate: Know where you’re going to land.


Most times, when you’re dealing with an unexpected crisis, you don’t know exactly what to do, but if you’re clear about your values, you’ll know who you want to be. There’s an ancient proverb that says, “The integrity of the upright will guide them.”

When navigating an organization through crisis, keep asking, “Who do we want to be in the midst of this?” and “What do we want to be true about us when it’s all over?”

Altitude + Ideas = Good Landing

 Shults says, “As long as you have altitude and ideas you’re okay. We had both.”

She had the advantage of losing an engine at 32,000 feet.

The altitude gave her time to identify and consider multiple ideas.

Those ideas led to actionable plans to get safely on the ground.

 Altitude without ideas makes for a prolonged decent into disaster.

Ideas without altitude provide options without the resources to implement them.


Panic results in poor decisions poorly executed.

If you’re in the middle of a leadership crisis, what’s your altimeter look like?

What resources do you have that can buy you time? Personnel? Cash on hand?


Once you’ve determined how much time you have, it’s time to get ideas.

What forum do you have for generating ideas? 

Are their voices you should be hearing from that don’t have access to the conversation?

Once you’ve identified an idea to pursue at your current altitude (which is likely different from your starting altitude), is everyone clear about what role they play in executing the plan.


Sometimes engines fail.

It’s not the leadership job to create fail proof engines.

It’s the leader’s job to stack the cabin with people who can aviate, communicate and navigate when the pressure is on.











Craig Custance