Every time I read about or experience one of these situations, I am reminded of a story I read in The Checklist Manifesto about the emergency checklist for engine failure in a single engine Cessna airplane. The checklist has just six vitally important steps, including things like making sure the fuel valves are open and ensuring the backup fuel pump is turned on. But the first step is fascinating. It is simply FLY THE AIRPLANE. In the confusion of losing an engine, pilots often panic and forget the most obvious things they should be doing. It seems completely unnecessary, but this step ensures the best chance for survival.
The human body’s physical “fight or flight” response evolved to help it evade a dangerous situation, which historically involved extreme physical exertion. The rush of steroids into the bloodstream essentially turns off unnecessary systems, including some higher thinking processes, to aid in escape. Unfortunately, as we’ve evolved into more intelligent beings, that response hasn’t evolved along with us. The stress response is still optimized to prepare for a short period of extreme physical exertion, not for increased mental clarity. The result is painfully obvious with Air France 447: the co-pilot made an absurd error that no pilot in his right mind would make.
So, the next time you’re in a crushing situation, remember how irrational humans can be under stress, and remember to FLY THE AIRPLANE.