Highlights from our interview with Richard de Crespigny
Captain Richard de Crespigny became internationally famous overnight after a potentially disastrous explosion aboard QF32, the A380 he was flying in 2010.
In our interview summarising Fly! Richard describes how teamwork, leadership, skill and resilience saved the lives of all 469 passengers aboard, and what lessons all leaders can glean from his experience.
A crisis hits fast. You need to manage your way through the first 30 secs where you want to run away or freeze or do things that are not helpful.
The first thing in a crisis is to accept your situation. Then create time. Time gives you options. You should particularly not rush in a technical situation. The computers may not act logically. You have to keep calm and manage your way through the processes without panic.
Take the glass half full approach. During Apollo 13, flight director Gene Krantz said “Gentlemen, stop wondering about what’s broken and let’s concentrate on what’s working.”
Ego is the enemy to teamwork. If the goal is safety, anyone in that team should be able to say stop. The nurse seeing a surgeon not washing their hands should say stop. That’s why only 50 people died in aviation last year out of 4.5 billion passenger seats. Compare this to hospitals, where accidents and errors are the third highest reason for death.
It’s important to have a shared mental model. I have a mental model in my brain, and if I share that, then we share all our combined intelligence like the Borg on Star Trek. If you go autocratic and follow only your own mental model, then you leave everyone behind and you damage the resilience.
There did come a point during the flight – my mental model collapsed. That’s when I inverted the logic, and considered the Armstrong Spiral (where we would climb altitude to do a space shuttle approach back to Singapore in case we ran out of fuel and lost all engine power). The other pilots said stop, so we didn’t do it.
QF32 was a story of team resilience. All these ideas surfaced. I wouldn’t change any decision we made. And that’s extraordinary, given we made 200 -300 decisions that flight. It’s not me, it’s the team, and our decision making process, and the decision to put the safety of passengers above ego.
We couldn’t contact the cabin during the flight. The cabin service manager was doing his job in the cabin. I trusted him to do his job as he trusted me to do my job. They left us alone. In a crisis, when you have teams, you defer to their experience. You don’t micromanage.
A win is a team win, and a loss is always the leader's fault. The leader is responsible for building up the culture. The culture is what people do when no-one is watching.
The culture must be a Just Culture, where honest human errors are forgiven. People even report their own errors so the system can learn.
When the CEO cares for the staff and they know the mission, the whys, the values and the brand, and know they’re supported by their leader, they will take risks for their organisation. That’s what we have in aviation. That’s what we can apply in our personal and corporate lives.
What's a book you'd recommend? 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. Erroneous Zones by Dr Wayne W. Dyer. Erroneous Zones was a funny story. I was 17 and thought it was Erogenous Zones. But it changed my life.
If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be, and what is the book title? I would co-author a book with Bill Gates called “FLY! – Earth”. FLY! is my book about Personal and Corporate Resilience. “FLY!-Earth” would be Bill’s and my book about Human Existential Resilience. FLY!-Earth would explain the neuroscience of our fears, dread, panic and nationalism. It would explain the need for local tribalism yet also global multiculturalism and teamwork.
What's a great bit of advice you could share? Commit to a lifetime of learning. Make space. We have to change and adapt for the disruption. We have to commit to a lifetime of learning and reading, the two most important things in life.
What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover? My mother died when I was 17 and I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t understand post-traumatic stress then. I do now. I would break down every time I would mention her. I was married for 20 years before my wife said this is unhealthy, we have to talk about your mother. One whole chapter in Fly! is on post-traumatic stress. There can be growth in post-traumatic stress. It’s a normal reaction to stress and we can come out stronger.
How do you relax? Playing tennis, snow skiing. I have a little boat that I drive on Sydney Harbour.
What’s a fun fact, that’s not well known, about you? There’s a whole lot of devil in me. I’ll be a devil’s advocate. I enjoy discussions on religion, climate change and politics and if we all agree I’ll probably change sides, just to keep the argument going.
What's the secret of success? Resilience is 8 factors: knowledge, training, experience, teamwork, leadership, crisis management, decision making, and risk. That is the book Fly! But the secret to success is Passion, Execution and Discipline. Let’s be clear. You can be successful but not resilient. Without teamwork you can’t be resilient.
What's a prediction for 2025? It will be better than this year. The world gets better every year. You must read Factfulness by Hans Rosling or Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. The world is a much better place than we think it is but no-one knows it. My mission after I retire in four years when I turn 65 will be to make sentient robots to be friends with elderly people in their homes.
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