There’s an old aviation joke that gets passed down often. It usually surfaces during the required night flight that every student must take during training. Night flights are stressful in a single engine plane. During the day, if you lose an engine, you’ve been trained to identify suitable fields within gliding distance for an emergency landing. But on a dark night with little moonlight, it's impossible to distinguish an open field from a grove of trees.
Invariably, the student quizzes the flight instructor on the procedure for a lost engine at night. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Student: “What do I do if I lose the engine on the night flight?”
Instructor: “If there are no runways or interstates within gliding distance, maneuver away from the lit spaces, which are cities and towns, and fly toward a dark area.
Student: “But how do I know whether I’m headed toward an open field or a bunch of trees?”
Instructor: “As you get closer to the ground, turn on your landing light.”
Student: “And then what?”
Instructor: “If you don’t like what you see, turn it back off…”
Most of the time, it takes a few moments for the joke to sink in. The instructor’s smirk usually accelerates the realization, which is: turn the light back off because you don’t want to see what is about to happen.
But the flip side to this kidding around, is a wise piece of advice that is often relayed for a true emergency:
Never stop flying the plane, no matter what.
All may seem lost, but you still must fly the plane, even if it’s all the way down to the crash. Why? Because until you hit the ground, you still have some control, and you may be able to minimize impact somehow, even if you don’t have a nice open field to land in.
A prime example is Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s response on US Airways Flight 1549. With both engines out over one of the largest cities on earth and no chance of making it back to the airport, a lesser person might have thrown his hands in the air and thought, why bother? But Sully flew the plane. He flew it all the way to the point of impact and didn’t lose a single soul.
Never stop flying the plane; never give up.
Of course, this is about influencing the outcome of what you can control, while letting go of what you can’t. And it has been written more eloquently than me in the Serenity Prayer. But the last line of that prayer is the kicker: having the wisdom to know the difference. May we always be able to tell.
And for all those items outside your control, just turn the landing light off and let go.