Imagine yourself in the seat of an Air Traffic Controller, sitting in a darkened room somewhere staring at screens with moving targets and talking with the pilots of those moving targets as they whisk along miles high in an aircraft that is likely moving at several hundred miles per hour. The pilot of a jet who just checked in with you was speaking unusually slowly, saying something about having trouble controlling the airplane.
Something is wrong, very wrong, but you’re not sure what. You move quickly to assess the situation, drawing on your training, your inner calm and your now adrenaline-rich blood to help you diagnose the problem and prescribe a remedy.
This scenario happened to a controller not too long ago and fortunately for us, the conversation between the disoriented pilot and the controller were recorded by ATC. The plane had suffered a decompression, which meant that there was an insufficient concentration of oxygen in the air to sustain normal brain function. The pilot was suffering from hypoxia.
One of the challenges of hypoxia is that the initial symptoms are euphoria and a carefree feeling. If the oxygen starvation continues, the extremities become become less responsive and flying becomes less coordinated. Hence, you’ll note the pilot mentioning that he was having trouble controlling the airplane.
The only way to avoid going unconscious is to breath supplemental oxygen from a tank aboard the airplane or to descend to levels where the air is thick enough to support normal brain and other organ function.
Sit back and listen carefully. You’ll be amazed at how professionally the controller handled the situation.
I always think of that controller when I am flying. It’s comforting to know that there are such capable, confident and intelligent people watching your back when you are in the air. The controller was no doubt trained for such emergencies, but it takes a special person to maintain the emotional control necessary to successfully navigate such a tricky and delicate situation.
We used this clip in a staff training recently as we provide support to doctors who often call in sounding not to different from the pilot of that airplane. Their confused, unsure of themselves and unclear as to what steps they should take to help their patients regain their health.
We cannot do the thinking for them, but we can ask questions in a way that allows them to regain their self-assurance and move forward on sound footing. They, like the pilots, are the experts of their profession and supporting them is a privilege and a delight!
It is easy to get into a panic when the normal approach to something doesn’t work or when it is more complex than you’re used to, but when that happens there is nothing more important than remembering to ask questions. Assess. Reassess. List the knowns and move from there. Keep your cool, remember what you know and look for what you might have missed.
Take the time necessary to do the job right and you will eventually find your destination!