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What does learning to fly have to do with business in our rapidly changing world?

Written by Simpatico PR

Posted on 2020-05-26

Paul was inscrutable. I had just run through the shutdown checks, the engine, radio and electrical systems were all off and we sat in momentary silence.

After an exhaustive and exhausting flying test during which I’d demonstrated landings with a variety of flap settings; skill tests such as stalling, steep turns, blind flying, navigation and procedures for engine failure - the moment of truth had arrived.

Was I good enough? Had I got my Private Pilot Licence?

Paul turned slowly with a faint smile: “Well done, you’ve passed, bit rusty in places but well done.” It was certainly a moment to remember after two years of flying lessons (often disrupted by the weather), nine written exams, a radio practical, a cross country navigation solo and finally this epic flight test with a senior examiner.

Learning to fly had always been an ambition, but the process has had some interesting side-benefits in terms of running a business and also thinking about the process of delivering meaningful business PR programmes in a rapidly changing world.

Little did I know it as I sat there in the cockpit with Paul, but the management mindset instilled by learning to fly, was to become incredibly useful a couple of months later with the arrival of the Covid-19 crisis.

Continuous learning

The aviation industry has an incredible safety record when you consider there were, pre-Coronavirus in excess of 100,000 commercial flights everyday of the year worldwide and that’s just for paying passengers and cargo. That figure doesn’t include military flights and General Aviation, the category in which my humble visual flight rules PPL gives me the right to fly within.

The industry has achieved this by making preparation, multiple continuous checks, a culture of sharing information and continuous learning an in-grained part of the culture of flying. Becoming a pilot requires a willingness to embrace the idea that flying is an on-going process of learning and improvement.

Preparation and visualisation

Flying out of Biggin Hill where the EFG Flying School’s little Piper Warriors share taxiways with Spitfires and large private jets - I have been lucky enough to learn in what’s regarded as some of the busiest airspace in the world.

A few short minutes of flying time takes you into heavily controlled airspace for Gatwick, London City, Southend Airport and Heathrow. Infringements in these areas can lead to serious repercussions including losing your licence.

Flying anywhere requires preparation, foresight, and visualisation of what you plan to do and what you might need to do should circumstances change. Thinking about each leg of the planned flight ahead becomes an essential, but also natural process.

Operating in a market likely to see a 40-60% fall in activity in Q2 means our business is well and truly feeling the economic turbulence.

From a business management point of view, Coronavirus has and is demanding fast analysis of the likely implications of each decision the Government has made to cope with the crisis and likely next steps.

It is tough but weighing up the facts and the likely consequences has helped us keep ahead of the situation as well as plan a route through it.

Decisive action

The cockpit is no place for dithering, but neither is it a great place for impulsiveness.

Flying requires a balance between attention to the facts communicated by your instruments and what you can see around you (refreshed by continual checks to make sure the information you’re getting is correct) and a willingness to act fast.

A classic example I have experienced repeatedly in my short flying career is the need to go around rather than land at an airfield. This is particularly true at airfields without air traffic control, where a radio operator on the ground can only advise pilots rather them direct them.

Another aircraft lining up to land in front of you may at first appear to have enough time to land before you and get clear. But that situation can change in seconds and become a marginal call.

Thinking ahead and being alert to changing circumstances, makes rapid and decisive decision-making far easier and more effective.

A heightened sensitivity to the information fuelling your management decisions and a willingness to act fast and or break regular operational cycles or routines, is always sensible but in the context of Coronavirus it has become vital.

That has meant making decisions I would never normally countenance. Or acting on ideas that may previously have felt a little leftfield, but in our changed business environment now make absolute sense.

Decisive communication

There are numerous tragic examples in aviation of poor communications causing fatal accidents. In 1990 Avianca Flight 52 from Bogotá crashed in New York because it ran out of fuel even though it had enough to reach its destination or alternatives airports.

A transcript of cockpit communication revealed the pilot, who had been asked to repeatedly enter holding patterns on his route, did not declare an emergency situation.

Instead he simply reported the factually correct, but less urgent message "running out of fuel". Although a concern, this did not register with air traffic controllers as a situation they must immediately act on.

Being clear and transparent with your team about the decisions you are making and the plans you are formulating to cope with the Coronavirus crisis, means everyone can prepare and we can act in unison.

For me, this has been one of the most important aspects of managing the business through the crisis.

No one is going to die if you don’t do it well, but in B2B PR the same principles apply both to talking to the media and to clients.

Conversations left hanging without either a decisive conclusion or a perceptive, actionable suggestion lead to muddled plans or missed opportunities.

The ability to crunch the importance or relevancy of an idea or news story into a single subject line or headline is a huge part of the battle to win the fleeting attention of journalists. The same is just as true of content marketing via social media or email.

An open mind

Flying well means humility and openness. It may be counter intuitive, but authoritarian pilots do not do well.

Although there are instructors and captains with huge amounts of experience compared to juniors such as myself, aviation culture enables polite challenges and questioning – in the air management structure is flat and mutual. Points of view and observations are all equally valid.

Not only does this make flying safer but I think as an industry, it is a trail blazer for progressive business management.

One of the interesting observations of the impact of Coronavirus is that business leaders have become far more visible and accountable to their teams.

Open ideation and questioning of opinions, is something that the technology, creative and media industries have embraced wholesale. Likewise, the need for continual learning.

Channelling this ethos into business communications planning, creative thinking and into relationships with clients makes for far more effective and sustainable relationships.

You don’t need to learn to fly to be brilliant at business or communications but becoming a pilot has given me a new perspective on what we do and made me think about the disciplines involved.


With some lockdown restrictions being lifted, General Aviation pilots are no longer grounded. However private flying, just like everything else will take time to get back to normal. As I write, most flying schools and clubs are still closed and are working with the authorities on how they can safely resume flying.

Many aircraft waiting for servicing or other maintenance will still be in the queue for attention, so from a logistical point of view as well the skies will remain relatively quiet for a while yet.

Having just passed, it is frustrating waiting until it is safe to fly again. But in the meantime, some of the skills I’ve learned have helped in what is the biggest business challenge of our generation.

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