Piloting your startup – Lessons from a plane crash

Dissecting the cause of an accident (business collapse) is full of lessons for startup owners.

You would be surprised by the number of similarities between the most common causes of military aircraft accidents and those of business failures.

I have a unique perspective on both, having served on accident investigation teams for the US Navy and Boeing, and for the past 18 years, coming to the aid of business owners, both They start out as established ones, striving to put their company on a path of sustainable growth.

As a former Boeing flight safety engineer, one of my responsibilities was to support accident investigations of our military fighter jets. As you might expect, the United States military devotes considerable resources to analyzing aviation accidents and sharing its findings. The reasoning is that if the causes can be identified and the results shared the chance of the accident recurring can be drastically reduced.

The same should happen with companies. It is not like this?

Let’s look at an accident I helped investigate. It was an F/A-18 at an air show. The pilot was demonstrating the aircraft’s maneuverability by performing a square loop. He crashed at the end of the loop, hitting the ground with such force that he broke his back, legs and arm.

Since the aircraft was practically intact, we were able to extract the computers and memory, install them in a simulator and reproduce the flight, observing all the instruments, as well as the stick and throttle movements.

We witnessed how the simulator imitated the pilot while the plane climbed vertically in the plaza. We pay special attention to the altitude and speed indicators of the aircraft. I remember there was a collective gasp in the room when we saw that the pilot had cut the top of the square too low to complete this maneuver. We all knew it. After all, these altitude and airspeed numbers are burned into our memory during training. The main cause of this accident was evidently clear: pilot error.

What does this have to do with running a company? Owners often make poor decisions when running their business for growth. In retrospect, most could be easily avoided with strict adherence to a well-thought-out plan, assuming, of course, that there is a plan.

In this case, the flight plan (business) was a square loop that the pilot (business owner) did not execute correctly. The maneuver (plan) required me to maintain the climb (Step 1) for several hundred more meters before executing the pull at the top of the loop (Step 2). By deviating from the plan and not gaining the proper altitude (shortening the foundational work of the business plan) the pilot (business owner) put his plane (the business) in danger.

However, the pilot (owner) had the opportunity to minimize the damage (save the company) when he shortened his climb at the top of the loop. Realizing his problem, the pilot still had two options available: (1) Abort the maneuver by simply rolling the aircraft up and continue the show (admit the mistake and return to plan) or, (2) Continue with the maneuver. (out of a visceral feeling), thinking that I could pull it off by sheer force of will. The pilot chose the second option.

So why would a pilot (owner), with all the instruments (sales data, advisors, etc…) telling you that he is too low to complete the maneuver, proceed anyway?

Let’s go back to the accident investigation to find out. The pilot was a very experienced marine. He was a very strong man who exercised intensely. He was very proud of his physical strength and his health. This is probably what saved his life, but it was also a contributing factor to the accident. He believed that he could, by his strength, carry the plane through this maneuver before hitting the ground.

Somewhere in his mind he believed that the rules of that maneuver (plan) were designed for the average pilot (owner) and that he, with his above-average strength and experience, could prevail where others could not.

We often see very confident business owners act on instinct. They don’t do proper market research or long-term planning because they think the rules don’t apply to them. And the result is almost always the same: failure or a significant loss of money (crash and burn) in the process.

And let’s not forget the ego.

The pilot had friends and family in the air show audience. It was a local crowd and the last day of the show. Imagine how difficult it would be to admit to his friends that he made a mistake and had to abort one of this plane’s most spectacular stunts. Think of the ridicule he would receive from his fellow Marines upon landing. He would have been uncomfortable and a little humiliating, but surely it was a better alternative than risking life and limb (bankruptcy), right? Not for this marine. Aborting the maneuver was not an option.

There’s something strange that happens the moment you add the title Owner, President or CEO to your business card.

You become an artist. In a way, you see your employees, investors, business acquaintances, clients, friends and family as members of a large public. There are expectations and preconceived notions that you put in your head about how you should act (run your business). For example, never show weakness or indecision, never admit that you don’t know, never admit that you have made a mistake, and never ask for help. This “I can’t disappoint my audience” mentality led this pilot to continue the maneuver and crash. It has led entrepreneurs to do the same.

The pilot miraculously survived this accident (see video below), recovered from his injuries and finally flew again.

This is rare for both pilots and business owners. Who knows how many pilots’ lives have been saved thanks to this research and the dissemination of their story. I hope the same goes for those who are pilots in command of their business.