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Hero? ... or Simply Good Leadership!

Most of you have heard the testimony of the recent incident on Southwest Airlines flight number 1380. The left engine exploded in flight leaving the aircraft with only one operational engine. The Captain maintained aircraft control, analyzed the situation and took the proper action to safely land the aircraft at a suitable airfield. Everyone, including the media, flight attendants, air traffic controllers and the passengers were astounded at the calmness and confidence of the Captain as she led her team under extreme duress. Many have said the Captain’s actions were brave and courageous - that she was a hero. As a long time pilot in both the military and commercial airlines, I believe her actions, first and foremost, centered around good leadership. Here’s why…

Travel by air over the decades has become as commonplace as jumping in your car to get some groceries. The by-product from this commonality with air travel has been a public perception that putting humans in a metal tube and hurtling them into the sky is a simple, low-risk endeavor. The impression seems to be these days that piloting a 700,000 pound aircraft with 300+ people is an easy task. However, even with all the new technology that has evolved over the years, nothing could be further from the truth. Quite frankly, all the technological innovations in automated flight have set up a potential environment for complacency and misplaced attention by the individuals at the controls of the aircraft. This is where good leadership, training and discipline most likely saved the day for Southwest 1380.

Although Southwest didn’t release the Captain’s name, photos from the event were easily used to identify the Captain of the airliner. After reading about her 30-year career, in both military and commercial aviation, most people would think her vast experience is the exception rather than the rule for a typical airline Captain. This too is a misnomer. To a person, there are no better trained leader’s in our country than its professional aviation corps. I can honestly tell you I have never met more capable and motivated individuals in our society than those inside the nation’s cockpits and flight decks.

My assessment is based on Two Blue Aces’ 5Cs of effective leadership - Competence, Character, Courage, Commitment and Compassion. Let me quickly go through each one relating it to the Southwest 1380 incident.

Competence - the Captain of this flight trained her entire career for this very day. Through extensive knowledge of the aircraft technical data, countless hours practicing emergency situations in the simulator and thousands of previous flights leading her crew, the Captain reacted to a serious situation calmly and confidently because she had “been there-done that” numerous times before. Her attention to detail, disciplined checklist procedures and superior leadership made this “heroic” event look simple.

Character - the fact that she didn’t want to be recognized is very common of a leader of character because she knows the successful conclusion of this incident was a team effort including the first officer, flight attendants, air traffic controllers and the airport first responders. She merely saw her actions as simply “doing her job” and not worthy of heroic accolades-the true sign of a humble, approachable leader.

Courage - defined as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty and danger without fear.” The Captain’s mind is wired to act decisively utilizing all support assets at her disposal to safely execute her responsibilities. Although I’m sure she briefly considered the perils that could lie ahead, courage suppressed and compartmentalized the fear inherent in the situation allowing her to perform the actions necessary to get the plane on the ground as quickly and safely as possible.

Commitment - the Captain’s daily excellence on each and every endeavor associated with her leadership role with the crew is essential for forming the trust to act effectively during any situation. The public is rarely exposed to the Captain’s daily commitment to excellence each and every flight. This attention to detail and vigilance when no one is “looking” is exactly what produces the great leadership when an emergency situation occurs. She is there day in and day out leading her team from one successful flight to the next. You won’t see any news story going viral on her daily successes.

Compassion - the Captain’s compassion was the most highlighted testimonial expressed by the passengers. Her calmness and confidence came from years of leadership training accumulated over her career. She has been trained to help reduce the anxiety of passengers and help them deal with potentially perilous situations. The photo of the Captain shaking hands with the passengers and crew after safely landing says it all. Although this Captain has flown in high risk, combat missions and probably numerous other flights with serious emergencies, she still has the compassion to embrace the other people on the flight that are not as familiar with the risks and dangers of flying.

I have purposely left this Captain’s name off this blog to emphasize my point. Any of the thousands of Captain’s flying the friendly skies today could have been on that flight deck likely resulting in a similar outcome. The key is that all of these individuals have not only been trained to be phenomenal aviators but also team leaders. I believe a hero is someone who performs an extraordinary action in a dangerous situation when they had no responsibility to perform the act. A leader, however, is someone with the responsibility to train and prepare their team to be ready to take on any situation and succeed. This Captain was truly the latter.


Major General Rob Polumbo USAF (retired) was a distinguished graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1984. During his 14 years of active duty, he served as an instructor pilot, flight examiner, weapons officer, test and evaluation pilot, operations officer and squadron commander. Additionally, he served as the aide-de-camp to the Air Force Chief of Staff.


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