How To Keep From Crashing When The Engine Stops

The single-engine Cessna 172 was about 1,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean when that engine stopped.

I still don’t know why it stopped. All I know is that I was the pilot and the sole occupant of the plane. I had just taken off from a small airport in Western Washington. The pre-check had been routine. The takeoff had been uneventful. The sky was blue, the wind was calm. It was a beautiful day for flying.

And then the engine stopped.

What would you do? How do you react when the pressure’s on? How can you make sure you’re at your best when it matters most?

Leaders face pressure all the time. Pressure from above to deliver results. Pressure from below to motivate and inspire. Pressure from the clock. Pressure from the budget. And, of course, pressure from the “real world” outside of the workplace: the spouse’s upcoming surgery, the kid’s braces, the car’s flashing “CHECK ENGINE” light. And a leader is expected to produce under pressure, no matter where it comes from.

Some of these pressures are predictable, like the report that’s due every Monday at 9 am. Some are unpredictable, like when the single engine of the airplane you’re piloting stops at 1,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean. But the answer to both is the same:

Preparation.

Anyone who’s ever trained for a pilot’s license will tell you that that training includes dozens and dozens of simulated “engine out” exercises. The instructor, without warning, pulls the engine back to idle and says, “Your engine’s just gone out; where are you going to land?” Do this drill often enough, and it becomes a part of your subconscious. To this day, when I’m flying commercially from one speaking engagement to another, I’ll sometimes look out the window and ask myself, “If I were flying this plane and the engine(s) went out, where would I land?”

That’s how you produce under pressure. That’s how you ensure you’ll be at your best when it matters most. You practice. Over and over again. You do mental drills. “What would I do if there’s a delay in the supply chain?” “What would I do if my number one producer got an offer from our biggest competitor?” You prepare.

Pilots routinely prepare for the unexpected. So do professional athletes. And military commanders. People whose jobs require them to produce under pressure are continuously preparing.

Shouldn’t you be too?

When my engine stopped, I went into “automatic react” mode. I trimmed the plane for maximum glide ratio. I tried a restart. When that didn’t work, I initiated a 45-degree bank turn back to the runway-not knowing if I would make it or not, but knowing that this angle of bank gave me the most distance relative to altitude loss. I mentally went over the procedures in case I had to perform what is humorously called a “water landing.”