United DC-10Have you ever had that situation in which you struggled with a problem and when you thought of the answer it was so obvious that you wondered why it took you so long? That’s essentially because your mind has been spending its time coming up with numerous, largely worthless solutions, before the eureka moment (Lehrer 119). But it’s in that phase where you are doing the mental lifting, collecting and evaluating data, that allows the solutions to manifest.

In 1989, when a DC-10, United Airlines Flight 232 lost hydraulic pressure with 296 passengers on board, Captain Al Haynes and his crew experienced a situation they’d never planned for nor trained for. Yet, they were still able to save the lives of 184 of those on board.

The type of incident was never supposed to happen. The catastrophic failure of all three hydraulic lines, simultaneously, is virtually impossible – these are the lifelines that power the aircraft control surfaces – it’s what allows the plane to go up and down and turn left and right.

Yet, on July 19, 1989, it happened. There was no emergency procedure for it and the mechanics and engineers back at United had no plan nor any idea how to fix the problem. The first thing the flight crew did is what all pilots are trained to do – fly the plane. Haynes got control of the aircraft, then started working through solutions. He first made a mental list of what systems were working (Lehrer 123) and suddenly had the idea that he could use differential thrust to turn the plane.

A DC-10 has three engines, one in the center and one on either side of the tail. By adding thrust to just one of the engines and reducing it on the other, he could turn the plane slightly left or right. Climbing wasn’t an option as the plane did not have elevator control (the thing that makes it go up and down), so the descent became one long mathematical problem with the aircraft best glide rate. However, because the engines on the DC-10 sit below thew wings, increasing the throttle causes the plane to pitch up – without getting into the aerodynamics, is means essentially he had to accelerate on the downhill and brake on the uphill (Lehrer 124-125), which is exactly the opposite of how the controls normally worked. Haynes had to learn a new way to fly at 30,000-feet.

  • Haynes and his flight crew kept their emotions in check. Pilots, like first responders (police, fire, EMS personnel) practice emergencies over and over until their first reactions are an automatic response to their training. This helps overcome possible panic.
  • The flight crew reduced information overload by focussing on the most necessary bits of data (Lehrer 129).
  • They cracked jokes to reduce stress (Lehrer 129)
  • Haynes’ prefrontal cortex allowed him to take an abstract principle, the physics of engine thrust and the aerodynamics of flight, and apply it to an unfamiliar context to generate an entirely new solution – he was literally modeling the aerodynamics in his mind (Lehrer 130)

The prefrontal cortex also allows us to take in a visual model or picture, then switch focus to something else while our mind continues to see the “echo” of the previous picture, helping us make creative associations (Lehrer 130). Being able to hold more information in the prefrontal cortex longer, allows us to form more useful associations, and you can do this by being more disciplined about what you choose to think about – this is actually a simple concept – it’s called “taking it one step at a time.”

When Haynes was trying to figure out how to just keep the plane flying he wasn’t worried about how he was going to land it or how to break the news to the passengers. He just focused on the task at hand. This allowed him to take in only the information he needed and make the necessary associations to solve the problem. This wasn’t just flying by the seat of his pants as Haynes also made himself think about the implications of his possible solutions before implementing them.

In retrospect, using differential thrust seems like a reasonable thing to do yet no one before Haynes had thought about it. No one had imagined a situation where it would be necessary either. It wasn’t just thinking about the problem that led to the solution – it was Haynes training, his knowledge of aircraft engines and performance, his knowledge of aerodynamics and his flight skills that combined, led him to effective solutions. He also had a lot of help from his flight crew, a deadheading check airman (kind of like an airline flight instructor) and even air traffic controllers on the ground. Haynes was open to feedback from his crew and others, and although there was a tsunami of information, instrument readings and advice coming in he stayed focused on only collecting the essential information and data he needed. While he flew the plane (focused on the task), his subconscious mind put together all the lessons he needed and developed insights and solutions.

What problem are you trying to solve? Would it help to collect some data, then go do something else? You can’t really unthink something, but you can consciously distract yourself into another activity and see what your subconscious mind can process.

Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

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