Although I don’t watch a lot of TV, one of my “guilty secrets” is that I am fascinated by the “Air Crash Investigation” series. This factual TV series catalogues a range of near misses and miraculous landings, as well as some very unfortunate and tragic air disasters.
Over the years, the commercial aviation industry has become safer and safer—and the fact that every mistake, disaster and near-miss is scrutinised in detail has undoubtedly led to a culture of safety (see the fascinating book ‘Black box thinking *‘ by Matthew Syed for more about this).
I was recently catching up with an old episode of the show, which focused on a case where a skilful pilot successfully landed a plane with almost every automated system failing. Many things fascinated me about this case, but one thing that really stuck with me was when the pilot described the concept of declaring “Pan-Pan“.
Pan-Pan: We’re dealing with an emergency, leave us alone (for now)!
It turns out, that when a pilot is dealing with an emergency situation (which doesn’t yet require a ‘mayday’), they will declare Pan-Pan to Air Traffic Control. According to the pilot on the show, and articles I’ve read elsewhere, this has several useful functions:
1. It prevents Air Traffic Control from communicating or relaying any non-urgent radio traffic. They leave the pilots to focus on resolving the emergency,
2. Air Traffic Control can clear the way and be prepared if a ‘mayday’ call is subsequently made.
When you think about this logically, it makes sense. When the Captain and First Officer are desperately trying to diagnose the problem, referring to the in-flight computer and completing emergency checklist after checklist, the last thing they need is constant interruption. I cannot even begin to imagine the intense focus that must be required on a flight deck in such circumstances, and have the greatest of respect for those that work in the aviation industry.
If a project was a plane…
As I listened to this case study, it struck me that on projects, a very different approach is taken when potentially dangerous news emerges. When bad news emerges on a project, it is all-too-common that the following things will happen: