What I Learned from Crashing a Jet: Part 2 – Living in the Moment

Boat Sailing into a Storm

We approach every situation with a certain amount of energy. Several factors, such as sleep, nutrition, and environmental conditions, can influence our levels. However, we fail to function at our utmost potential if we don’t utilize our energy fully.* Reflecting on the afternoon of my fateful flight, I realize that my performance was not my best – due to my energy – and I could have done more to improve it. Despite my poor night of sleep and dehydration, I could have practiced the disciplines of acceptance, awareness, and presence in the moment to achieve a better outcome.

Embrace the Past – Acceptance

By the time I entered the aircraft carrier’s traffic pattern, I had logged dozens of landings during training, all to instill habits. One of those rituals was an ability to self-assess and correct any deficiencies to a textbook landing pattern – a level of self-judgment. Although this skill is practical when we objectively analyze data, it is not constructive when we assess ourselves subjectively under pressure. This practice can lead to negative self-talk and have a toxic effect on our performance.

After completing my break turn – a hard ‘G’ maneuver that quickly slows the aircraft to approach speed – I lowered my landing gear and flaps and completed my landing checklist. Now I was on a course opposite the aircraft carrier, aiming for a point in the sky called the 180 or abeam position. Per the procedures, this point is approximately 1 to 1.2 nautical miles abeam the carrier’s landing area and allows the pilot to fly a controlled turn for 180 degrees and roll out onto a ¾-mile straightaway behind the boat. However, when I hit the 180 and did a last-minute cross-check of my distance, I was at 0.7 nautical miles – nearly ½-mile too close. This predicament forced me to fly an increased angle-of-bank turn and add more power to roll out on a proper landing glideslope.

Yet, the aircraft was way too high when I rolled the wings level behind the carrier. I had used too much engine thrust around the turn, and the Landing Signal Officer waived me off, which began a downhill trend. I had four landing passes at the boat, and none resulted in a safe and respectable arrested landing – our goal for the flight. With each pass, I plunged further into a panic. I got angry and started swearing at myself.

Looking back, I should have practiced the discipline of acceptance – my first lesson from the mishap. We cannot achieve a level of mastery without it. We detract from our energy when we fight our current circumstances and wish for a different result. Our emotions hijack our thinking, and we lose control, worsening the situation. If we “embrace the suck” – to borrow the common phrase – and accept our circumstances, then we can shift our mindset. This discipline dedicates our energy to the present moment and improves our decision-making. In my case, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me and lost my concentration, setting the stage for the next phase of my flight.

Open Your Senses – Awareness & Presence in the Moment

After my fourth pass, when the tower ordered me to divert, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I thought my chances of qualifying had dropped to zero, and my mind began to race, wondering what my future would look like. I was not present in the moment – my next lesson. Suppose we are distracted, engaged in more than one action at a time, or worried about the past or future. In that case, we are not giving all our energy to the current circumstances or living up to our maximum capacity. The task was straightforward – fly safely back to the divert airfield. However, I was more worried about my past performance and what that meant for my future. Since I wasn’t present in the moment, my situational awareness was deficient, which closed my eyes to changes in my circumstances. I could not tap into my intuition. 

There is a saying in the sports world, “Nothing new on race day.” It means you shouldn’t deviate from your training or pre-race preparation because it can throw you off your game. I ignored this advice. The T-45 is a tandem-seat trainer aircraft with dual flight controls and two navigational panels, one set in the front and one in the back. Each control panel has a button that allows the pilot to select the front or back navigation console as the primary source for the needles on the bearing-distance-heading indicator (BDHI). I did not use the back navigational panel on my earlier solo flights. I used the front panel for any required navigational aids (NAVAIDs). However, before our carrier qualification flight, the “gouge” passed around by fellow students was to tune the divert airfield’s navigational station into the rear panel before you start the jet, so all you need to do is press the button to change the station. It seemed simple and could save time – so I did it.

As I climbed to the preassigned altitude on my bingo profile, I glanced at my navigational aids and pressed the button to switch the station. The needle on my gauge swiveled around and pointed in the general direction the jet was heading. No problem. Focus on my priorities – aviate, navigate, and communicate. Next, I tuned up the frequency of the air traffic controllers monitoring our airspace and checked in with them. While I went through my standard check-in procedure, I heard an instructor call me on the other radio. As I managed both frequencies, I cross-checked my flight gauges and prepared my aeronautical charts for the flight home. Eventually, the instructor called back, asking me to relay my position from a particular NAVAID. I looked down at my panel and dialed in the new station. When I looked at my BDHI, I read off my location and passed it along. Several minutes later, the instructor called back, stating he could not spot me between the cloud layers and asking for a new position. As I cross-checked my panel and BDHI, I realized that I had not selected the front panel as the primary navigational source – I was giving the instructor a faulty position. After fixing my error, I quickly passed him my ‘new’ coordinates and hoped he wouldn’t pick up on my oversight. It was not a good day.

Reviewing the events, it is evident that my head was not entirely in the game. My lack of sleep and the long day were starting to affect my mind. I was simultaneously angry with my past performance and worried about my future while trying to fly back to shore. It was a recipe for disaster. The situation required my complete focus – to live in the moment. I was mentally getting farther and farther behind the aircraft, and the mistakes were starting to pile up. However, a figurative storm was on the horizon, and the worst of them was yet to come.

Although I didn’t start the flight with a high level of energy, I had an opportunity to focus more of what I did have on the mission – through acceptance, awareness, and presence in the moment. Reflecting on your biggest challenges, how could acceptance, awareness, and presence in the moment have helped you? How could you incorporate these more into your life today? What are you learning about yourself?

P.S. – If you are curious about living more in the moment and want to resurrect your potential, work with a coach. Find out more right here.

Photo: Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels

* This post contains my interpretation of the copyrighted work of Bruce D Schneider and the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC).