Life Lessons Forged in the Sky.

Let’s face it: most of life is about reconciling the failure of what we planned but didn’t happen, or accommodating the unexpected that wrecked what we had planned for and expected.

The hard lessons of flight apply appropriately to unexpected challenges of life, because both share a common reality: no matter what, there’s no turning back–or not even any slowing down, much less stopping. You’re under way–and you have to deal with what you encounter as you go.

In my years in flight, whether it’s been a case of something on fire, exploded, died, a mountain staring you in the face seconds away, or even plummeting through a thousand feet at terminal velocity with a parachute that just ain’t going to open, the following holds true and will get you through–in the air or on terra firma:

1. Breathe. I mean it–in and out, and notice that you are. Means you’re still alive, still in the fight and as importantly, it enforces the moment of pause, the time it takes to say (repeat after me) “Can you believe this sonofabitch is still flying?” that divides reaction from response.

Reaction is inevitable–but it doesn’t substitute for cogent, meaningful and effective response. After you’ve had a breath or two, a few heartbeats to ponder, then you can better decide and act. Isn’t that the basics of Relationship 101: hold the first thought that pops into your head which you can always say later–but you can’t take back.

Now you’ve got a running start–consider your backups, your alternatives, better courses, then speak up; act deliberately, not reactively. Yeah, the damn engine’s on fire. But we have a few very good ways to deal with that, let’s choose one and proceed cautiously.

2. Trust no one–particularly yourself. That is a liberating concept, when you really think about it: used to be in the pilot biz there were tons of memory items for instant use in emergency situations. But then the evolution of common sense prevailed in the realization that in a dire situation, you need to first do #1 above anyway. It’s hardly the time for recitation and boilerplate solutions–especially without having taking the time to analyze before acting.

Plus it introduces another layer of challenge and doubt into an already critical situation: did I memorize that litany correctly and repeat it verbatim? Suddenly, the response to a critical situation takes on a gatekeeper function–one you can worry to death about ahead of time, one you can doubt at the right time, before you even manage to conjure the resource you so wisely memorized ahead of time. You hope.

Never mind that: you don’t need to know the answer–you just need to know where to find it. And meanwhile, trust no one who says they already know–including yourself. Knowing is overrated, especially in complex situations where often, things aren’t what they seem anyway. Often, you really can’t even clearly identify the actual question in a tangled mess of a situation anyway. Just know where to find the answers, and share that, making sure it’s the best solution and being sure there aren’t other alternatives–you might need them too.

3. Believe. In what? In you, in the future, in your ability to get there regardless of the challenges. Claim #1 above–you don’t have to do anything instantly; and #2, you’re not even supposed to know what to do. You just have to take a moment to stand back and survey the situation, then know where to look for answers, believing that you can–and will–step by step, work your way forward.

Because as we’ve noted, we’re hurtling forward regardless. And that’s the beauty of it: we can’t know what’s ahead anyway, so we don’t even have to worry about what to do “if;” rather we just have to be calm enough, patient enough and capable enough to do the best thing “when,” not if, things go haywire.

Three time shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane told me how a shuttle commander he flew with brushed aside the “what ifs” associated with their flight, saying “No sense dying all tensed up.” Fighter pilot and veteran of 265 combat missions Mark Berent told me that when you’re in a fight where you’re clearly outgunned, sometimes all you can do is give it back in the same way you’re getting it, knowing you’re going to die but willing to fight nonetheless.

The big three above are all about doing exactly that. Take a breath, let yourself off the hook, think, act and believe. The fact that despite the odds, the challenges, the worst case scenarios and long odds that we’re still here to talk about it gives me great faith going forward that when fate starts going haywire in the air or on the ground–and it always does–those three things are all you have to remember to give it right back to the world, plus ten percent interest for spite.

You’re going to be just fine–believe it.

Mark Berent served in the Air Force for more than twenty years, first as an enlisted man and then as an officer. He has logged 4,350 hours of flying time, over 1,000 of them in Combat. During his three Vietnam tours, Berent earned not only the Silver Star but two Distinguished Flying Crosses, over two dozen air medals, the Bronze Star, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Legion of Merit.

We go one-on-one with Mark Berent in a wide-ranging interview about flight, air warfare and more.

Don’t miss it! Subscribe free on iTunes–just click on the logo below.


7 Responses to “Life Lessons Forged in the Sky.”

  1. Lego Spaceman Says:

    Let’s apply these steps to a real life, on the ground situation.

    /thinking/ Holy crap, she just said that it’s twins!
    /thinking/ This is it, this is what the end feels like.
    /speaking/ WOW, that’s great honey!

    Everything is different now. You can’t trust what you already know, you have to think differently. Kids #1 & #2 were easy. They couldn’t gang up on you. Kids #3 & #4 are like the two tiny pebbles that start an avalanche. Everything is different now, you can’t trust what you already know.

    One year in and everybody is still alive, including the little misses and myself. How did that happen? Like you said, we had to do it. And we didn’t think for a second that we could not do it.

    Nice post Chris. This one really hit home for me.

    • I believe you absolutely have the makings of a blog–and I’ll subscribe.

      I wrote this mainly thinking of my daughter who is struggling with the first days of junior high. If only I could translate it into tween-speak.

  2. karine Walkey Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. great reminder for how to handle the turbulance in life…

    thank you


  4. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    This is a great post. In fact, I read it just in time to have the occasion of sharing it with someone struggling and needing to hear just these things!

    In particular, I loved the admonition as you expressed it: “Reaction is inevitable–but it doesn’t substitute for cogent, meaningful and effective response. After you’ve had a breath or two, a few heartbeats to ponder, then you can better decide and act. Isn’t that the basics of Relationship 101: hold the first thought that pops into your head which you can always say later–but you can’t take back.” So true!

    Thanks again, and I can’t wait to hear next week’s podcast with Mark Berent!

  5. Excellent post, Chris. I once was in a presentation class where the instructor shared a simple yet effective phrase to knock down any jitters: “Breathe And Believe.” It works.

  6. Excellent advice – really like that comment about “no sense dying all tensed up”

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