A Case of Do or Die

July 1, 2001
Necessity may be the mother of all invention, but crises require the quick conception of a strategy.

A Case of Do or Die

Denny Fitch was about to die -- he and 295 other people. What was about to kill him was lack of a strategy. But poor management didn't have anything to do with this dire situation. It was just that there was no precedent for a DC-10 engine exploding and severing all hydraulic lines in the aircraft's control system. That was the situation of United Flight 232, the doomed jumbo jet on which he was a passenger 12 years ago.

A DC-10 without hydraulics is an uncontrollable 350,000-pound heap of metal, glass and plastic. But engineering saw to it that hydraulics would never be a problem. Redundant design would ensure that if one hydraulic line went, three others were available to fill in for it. Unfortunately, no one envisioned a freaky doomsday scenario in which an exploding engine would send buzzsaws of shrapnel through every single hydraulic line.

The pilot of Fitch's DC-10 didn't have a strategy for surviving this situation because it wasn't supposed to happen. Even Fitch, who just happened to be a trainer of DC-10 pilots, didn't have a ready answer to this problem. However, he did have a strong desire to save himself and his fellow passengers. He offered that experience and desire to the pilot and was welcomed into the cockpit to help do some on-the-fly strategizing.

The cockpit team quickly absorbed its new member as he started doing his own R&D at the throttle. These procedures were not detailed in any of Fitch's training manuals. Nevertheless, the flight's captain gave this complete stranger access to the throttle -- the only thing that could have any control at all over this aircraft. That would buy them a little more time to strategize as they made their final approach to a Sioux City, Iowa, cornfield:

"Should we go in gear up or gear down? Our speed is 250 mph, 100 mph faster than a normal landing. Would the gear act as a shock absorber or would it destabilize us? Gear-down it is."

"Should we shut power off to the engines? NO! That's what's holding our right wing up! Without power the right wing would fall down steeply and the nose would pitch over. By playing with the throttle we may still maintain some slight directional influence."

The landing was historic -- and tragic. But not as deadly as it could have been. The toll: 112 dead, 184 survivors. Why tell this story here? Because this supplement is all about strategies. Denny Fitch didn't have a survival strategy when he boarded Flight 232 that day. He did have experience and a will to survive. Those elements were used to create a strategy that saved 184 lives.

He's now on the speaker circuit -- sharing this survival story with business people all over the country. I heard his message at Intermec's I-Comm conference in May. What lessons can you and I apply to our business lives?

"Teamwork works," Fitch answers simply. "What better proof of concept than when your own life is the prize? Use all resources available to you to get the best information. Be open to it. Ask for it. We're often too sophisticated for our own good in this society [to accept outside resources]."

The ability to strategize is primal. It dates back to the fight-or-flight days of early man. The power to make a strategy work is within you and those on your crew. Will it work? As Denny Fitch explained, whether you think it can or you think it can't, you're right either way. It's your choice.

Tom Andel, chief editor