This article provides a short review of Richard De Crespigny’s recent book Fly!: Life Lessons from the Cockpit of QF32. The aim of this article is to entice readers of The Cove to elevate this particular title in their future reading list. Both review authors recommend this work to you. The authors of this review are from different tribes, Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force. As it happened, the ‘Air Force guy’ recommended this work to the ‘Army guy’ after an earlier request for book titles. After viewing a previous Cove article on the UNTSO recommended reading list they put forward De Crespigny's book to be added to the future edition of the UNTSO Recommended Reading List for Military Experts on Mission. Both authors benefited markedly from the narrative, suggestions and lessons derived from De Crespigny’s book; so much so that the ‘Army guy’ recommends this work as essential reading for all officers of rank Captain (equivalent) and up.
Firstly, Fly provides an exceptional overview of individual and team resilience and those prudent preparations which responsible individuals and leaders undertake to enable correct decisions and response to improbable failures and unforeseen events, particularly when the stakes are high. Put simply, there are valuable tips and methodologies on how to respond to, and thrive, in crises. Secondly, this book draws on other examples of management, leadership, resilience and decision making in ambiguous situations and while under duress. If those reading this review are anything like its authors, they will finish this book with another ten cracking titles high up in the ‘to read soon’ list.
This review is structured in three parts. A brief overview is provided of the critical incident onboard QF32 to situate and contextualize what follows. The authors then briefly analyse aspects of the book to derive tips and takeaways. To conclude the review, a quote has been taken from Fly in order to satisfy the appetite of the prospective reader and explain the likely return on your reading-time investment.
On 4 Nov 2010, Richard De Crespigny was Captain of a Qantas Airbus A380 (QF32) carrying 440 passengers and 29 crew on a routine flight from Singapore to Sydney. The “weather was ideal, and it promised to be an easy trip. But what ensued was anything but easy.” An engine exploded and a mid-air emergency was declared. The incident was unprecedented and had the potential to be one of the world’s worst aviation disasters. In fact, Airbus and Boeing experts agreed that “the chance of such an event happening again is one in ten to the power of 14.7, or almost one million times less probable than their most improbable but planned-for possibilities.” The technical failure which caused the mid-air emergency and resulting loss of flight control avionics was a ‘Black Swan’ event and required an extraordinary human response by Captain and crew. If it were not for the leadership, resilience and decision making of the Captain and crew, the consequences may well have been catastrophic.
Fly provides an inside view of key leadership and resilience attributes that enabled effective crisis management during QF32. Fly builds confidence that De Crespigny’s performance was not all down to ‘nature’. While this Captain appears to possess many of those natural attributes that organisations seek in their future leaders – charisma, intelligence, physical presence and determination for professional mastery – much can equally be assigned to ‘nurture’. De Crespigny studied, planned and prepared to ensure that under duress he maximised his likelihood of success. “Great things happen when preparation meets opportunity and the QF32 incident gives us a rare opportunity to trace resilience back to its component parts.”
Fly is an exceptional, consolidated collection of practical and philosophical resources to aide in vocational and professional development, crisis management and leadership under duress.
Building resilience. De Crespigny opens the book with a section titled 'Mastering Your Mind, Maximising Your Performance’. In a fascinating explanation of how the mind works, drawing on knowledge from the fields of neuroscience, psychology and biology, De Crespigny outlines the criticality of understanding how the human mind works and subsequently training it to function at its best in times of crisis. Humans are biologically programmed to instinctively react in crisis situations, broadly known as ‘fight, flight or freeze’, in order to maximise the primordial human’s chances of survival. This was an effective system in early humans, though in today’s complex world these biological systems can be largely inhibitive. De Crespigny continues to explain and exemplify how we can reduce our predisposition to stress and panic through deliberate training and practice, thereby enabling the mind to retain control and maximise thinking space to assess and monitor the situation. As leaders in the profession of arms we are expected to perform in times of crisis, when errors can result in catastrophic consequences. It is important for us to understand the theory and apply the knowledge gained in practice. This read can assist the astute reader to do just that. For more information on this theme, also read Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, a title referred to in ‘Fly’.
Improbable failures. De Crespigny contends that there is no such thing as an ‘unimaginable’ event; a timely observation as most of our species apply social distancing principles to mitigate consequence during these days of the COVID-19 Global Pandemic. To add weight to his argument De Crespigny refers to the late Rick Rescorla, a previous director of security for Morgan Stanley, a global financial services company with plentiful office space in the World Trade Centre at the time of the 9/11 attack. Rescorla – who lost his life on 9 September 2001 as he searched for remaining Morgan Stanley employees when the South Tower collapsed – is credited for saving thousands of lives through his foresight and preparedness. Rescorla is said to have proposed and planned against the specific threat actions on the World Trade Centre, including both a truck bomb attack (as occurred in 1993) and the subsequent air-borne attack eight years later. Most importantly, Rescorla developed and rehearsed evacuation procedures for Morgan Stanley employees in the event of such an attack. Rescorla’s professionalism and diligence were said to have saved the lives of 2,687 Morgan Stanley employees who were safely evacuated from the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11.
‘Imagining’ events and conceiving in-extremis ‘actions on’ has utility at every level of leadership. Pilots rehearse protocols and procedures in the event of aircraft failure, however improbable, because ‘in-extremis actions on’ save lives. A good combat-team commander ought also to consider each and every way an enemy may attack, deceive or unbalance the force as part of their commander’s military appreciation process. But of course, imagining these possible failures is but a start; more important is to plan and rehearse mitigating ‘actions on’ or counter actions. A key takeaway from “Fly” is that actions (plural) ought to be considered in response to ‘imaginable‘ events, and rehearsed ad nauseum with all appropriate personnel until responses become instinctive. This empowers decision makers with enhanced options, and known reactions of personnel around them, during times of crisis.
Communication in a crisis. Together with his assessment, that “when you think you’ve communicated enough, double it”. De Crespigny provides a simple yet effective acronym – NITS – to structure stakeholder communication in a crisis situation. NITS stands for:
N – state the Nature of the problem
I – state your Intentions for dealing with it
T – estimate the Time it will take
S – clearly explain Special requirements.
Impressive examples of clear and concise communication, embracing NITS, are cited in his book. The review authors contend that De Crespigny’s communication skills and simple methodology were highly effective on QF32, within the cockpit and when interacting with passengers and crew. A mentor of one reviewer once provided a three-step briefing strategy; “be brief, be brilliant and be gone.” By excelling at the first two steps, De Crespigny bought himself time to deal with the emergency, without the distraction of questions from passengers and crew. Creating this time to think and act then provided De Crespigny with the material to inform his subsequent update to passengers ten minutes later.
De Crespigny’s performance as Captain of QF32 demonstrated communicative effectiveness – no small feat in an age where every public announcement is likely recorded on a mobile phone, uploaded to social media in real time by a passenger, and latched onto by a journalist as ‘the story’ if mistakes are made. De Crespigny’s performance and methodology provide examples upon which others can build.
Debrief, care of crew and passengers. De Crespigny’s effective communication skills in the air were continued on the ground after emergency landing. Unlike in other critical incidents exemplified in the book – where aircraft Captains were immediately detained on landing and taken for questioning by air accident investigators and authorities – De Crespigny led his passengers and crew through and beyond the critical incident. De Crespigny strictly planned and ensured that he was not separated from his passengers and crew, as he had self-identified an ongoing duty of care. In implementing his plan, De Crespigny demonstrated authentic leadership and genuine care for the wellbeing of those under his charge.
In the terminal after passengers and crew had been evacuated from the stricken aircraft, De Crespigny updated passengers and truthfully answered their questions. The benefits are clear when reading open source accounts from the incident; a potential calamity was turned into powerfully positive PR for Qantas. But more importantly, the authors contend that De Crespigny’s care for passengers and crew is likely to have greatly assisted the personal recovery and well-being of those involved in this highly stressful event.
Perhaps poignantly, De Crespigny describes one of his only communication failures during the incident. Caught up in his other many responsibilities and priorities, he allowed 14 hours to pass before speaking with his wife, who was no doubt wracked with worry as media reports confirmed her husband was involved in a critical incident - many reports being vague, confusing or plain inaccurate (some ‘credible’ news agencies reported the plane had crashed with many fatalities). As many of the readers of this review are likely to be military officers, we the readership are accustomed to placing our own needs and interests last. De Crespigny reminds us all that occasionally, those who are closest to us – our loved ones – may operate in our cognitive blind spot where we forget their needs in times of crisis. This vignette and De Crespigny’s reflections provide a useful reminder for us all.
Reputation management. In parallel with crisis management, modern military leaders must also seek to manage reputation of service and ADF. Reputations are hard gained and easily lost, and memories do not fade in today’s interconnected world. Therefore, we should all understand what to do and what not to do when leading in (and after) a crisis, in terms of reputation management.
De Crespigny summarises key errors in two case studies of badly managed crises, including the disappearance of MH370 and BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. He then details how and why the QF32 crisis was well managed, and the individual preparatory steps taken that proved crucial to his performance before, during and after the incident. The QF32 incident summary shares many valuable lessons on effective handling of crises and stressful situations, demonstrating that confident and competent leadership in crisis situations not only maintains reputation, but often enhances it. The central theme of this section of the book is simple: crises will happen – often unprecedented – and leaders must acknowledge this and prepare accordingly. It is perhaps useful to reflect on the idea that trust, or a positive reputation is ‘constructed with a teaspoon and destroyed with a shovel.’
Other key takeaways
This book is full of fantastic examples of complex individual, team and organisational issues described and analysed in layman’s terms for ease of understanding. The following highlights are shared for your interest and further reading.
Teamwork and trust. De Crespigny outlines and ameliorates Leoncini’s framework of dysfunctional teams, aimed to encapsulate the predictability of team failure and aid in diagnosis of, and intervention in, systemic issues within teams. The framework is designed as a pyramid, where each ‘stage’ is both a sign of dysfunction and a precursor to the next stage. The pyramid is broadly outlined as follows (to be read from the bottom of the pyramid, upwards), with a brief explanation of each stage provided parallel:
Importantly, when the logic of the pyramid is inverted, these reasons for failure offer a road map for team success, providing leaders with a framework to cultivate a healthy and generative team/organisational culture – starting with creating and maintaining trust. For those interested, a practical example of leadership intervention in a similar context is recommended via the book “Turn the Ship Around” by David Marquet.
Establishing trust is closely linked with a further example in De Crespigny’s work, whereby he explains a simple scenario explaining the folly of expecting accountability when delegating responsibility down the chain of command, without also delegating appropriate authority. The crux of De Crespigny’s point is that elimination of unnecessary top-down leadership processes is critical in providing ownership and empowerment and establishing trust within an organisation. Again, this concept is explored further in the aforementioned work by Marquet.
Further examples of the benefits of creating trust and a ‘feel safe’ environment within teams and organisations are commonplace throughout the entirety of De Crespigny’s work and can be further explored with De Crespigny’s reading recommendations, including Simon Sinek’s ‘Leaders Eat Last’ and ‘Start With Why’. As military leaders, we are often surrounded by hierarchical, bureaucratic processes and tradition or historical-based artefacts. In an increasingly complex and dynamic global environment, understanding and experimenting with modern leadership practices is crucial to evolving with the times and De Crespigny’s work is a window to such exploration.
Fly was an enjoyable and valuable read. Both reviewers commend De Crespigny’s book to you all. It is perhaps appropriate to offer the author the final word here, to both make the case and demonstrate the benefit you may derive from the time investment of reading his book;
“We responded to those unthinkable and unprecedented events by drawing on our deep reserves of knowledge and learned and practised skills in the areas of leadership, teamwork, risk assessment and decision making. We understood human behaviour and crisis management and specific techniques such as ‘inverting the logic’ to create novel solutions.
These elements that turned what could have been a terrible tragedy into a textbook success can be adapted into an endless array of other situations at work and at home. They are skills and techniques that can be learned and applied by anyone who wants to flourish in this rapidly changing, often turbulent world where opportunity and danger are intertwined.
The only certainty in life is uncertainty. We journey through order and chaos coupled tightly like Yin and Yang. Order is stable and secure. But without change and adaptation everything eventually dies. Equilibrium is the precursor to death. Chaos is challenging but it is necessary to progress and growth. Survival depends on being confident enough to embrace risk, adapt and change.
Resilience gives you this confidence. By deliberately building your personal and corporate resilience you will become confident enough to anticipate, respond to and recover from any challenge. Resilient people have the best chance of surviving when the unthinkable occurs. But they are also the ones who thrive in the normal, everyday challenges of life and work. This book is for those who understand we can’t control the future, but we can control how we respond to what life throws at us. It is for those who want to learn how to master their minds, fail well and recover from adversity. So they can triumph when it matters most.
When you harness the elements of resilience, you will have the confidence and mental flexibility to expect the unexpected and the adaptive performance to triumph when it matters most. You will become the best you can be. So let’s Fly!”