3 Lessons on Trust from Great Pilots and Aerobatic Teams

Did you know that the first, ever aviation meet happened in August 1909? It was the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne in France. The event apparently included 500,000 visitors (!) Ever since, air shows across the world have become increasingly popular. Trust among team mates in aerobatic teams has long been an area of interest to me. In this post, I’ll explore that through 3 examples.

50 years, 225 Airshow Incidents, and the risks of flying

The Wikipedia references a partial list of at least 225 incidents in airshows worldwide over the last 50 years. That is staggering. Many of these include aerobatics display teams, performing their breathtaking, jaw-dropping maneuvers in the skies.

What could possibly go wrong when you have seasoned pilots, detailed ground briefing, ‘walking-flying practice’, and full display practice? Many things, in fact. From structural, mechanical failures to weather, wind, visibility, pilot fatigue, or human error. Add to that +/- 5G forces and distances of approximately 1.5 to 3 meters separating the planes and you’re looking at a very, risky, business.

John King, of the King School’s fame shares that flying is never risk-free. The modern mindset of fooling oneself into believing that it’s risk-free is The Big Lie. Pilots learn to manage these risks, thanks to Training, Tools, and Trust (in their machines and team mates). They learn to do this despite the risks. 

No, this isn’t another post on aviation. But this got me thinking: Far beyond the reach of boardroom conversations, WebEx, or Telepresence, how does this all-encompassing trust take shape in the skies? How do these “team of teams” communicate, collaborate, and rely on their machines and most importantly, on their fellow pilots in circumstances that involve life and death? How can their lessons be applied in corporate organizations? Having watched planes, airshows, and aerobatics flying for a few decades now, here are 3, trust lessons that resonated deeply with me.

The Red Arrows
The Red Arrows arriving in Kuwait| Flickr CC| PC: Senior Aircraftsman (SAC) Craig Marshall

Rank Doesn’t Engender Trust. It is Earned. 

In an article on The Red Bulletin, David Montenegro, the leader of the Red Arrows, explains why, with just meters separating you in the air, faith in your fellow pilots is key. Even in the Royal Air Force where there’s a natural hierarchy, trust isn’t something automatically given. It develops over time and appreciation is hard-earned. Montenegro is a mentor, training officer, manager, and squadron leader. He says they look for team members who:

  • have character
  • are confident (but not over-confident)
  • accept informed criticism
  • can talk about their issues

Whether leaders are inheriting existing teams or building a new team, person-by-person, or starting from scratch with nothing but an idea, this is still sound advice. If it works for a profession of this intensity, would it not work for corporate organizations?

The Flying Bulls | Squadron Leader: Radka Machova | Aero India 2013

Trust Your Team Members

When 64-year old, seasoned Czech pilot and leader of The Flying Bulls, Radka Máchová was interviewed in 2013 and asked what it takes to maintain a good, tight formation with her team members, she said:

  • strong aerobatics experience
  • thorough practice
  • sense of responsibility
  • 100% confidence in the skill of other team members

You may recall that this team had an accident in Bangalore during Aero India 2015. While performing a maneuver, two planes scraped each other. Máchová’ lost her propeller and her team-mate, Jiří Saller, ended up with a heavily, damaged wing. A collision like that nearly always means, a tragic ending. And yet, both pilots landed safely without injury to themselves. Sure, training matters. But trust and looking out for each other matter. More than we’ll ever know.

In a constantly, disruptive world filled with tectonic shifts in the areas of geo-politics, technology, market, competition, and demographics, where can we find our own Máchovás, Sallers, and Montenegros? Every single one of us could be a starting point….when we understand the potential of mirror neurons.

Mirror Neurons (and Trust)

While reading 3 Things Pilot Know about Crisis Management by Kim GreenI discovered great examples of what mirror neuronal firing could do. Here’s an excerpt from her article:

“…Several years later, I had my turn at the helm during an emergency. As my student flew us back to our home airport one afternoon, my Cessna 172’s engine went down about 12 miles out. We’d thrown a valve and were running on partial power. My heart rate accelerated to match the irregular churn of the wounded engine, but my mind stayed quiet. “I’ve got the plane,” I told my student. We declared an emergency and turned toward the nearest airport.

The engine carried us there, unhurt and–at least in my student’s case–unruffled. He told me later he hadn’t felt afraid. “You had control of the situation,” he said.
Kim went on to say that her student had been “watching her for cues”. It’s the price and privilege of being a leader. You’re constantly on stage. You’re always being observed. And always being assessed and judged. Because she didn’t seem frightened, the student’s mirror neuron, mirrored the behavior of the flight instructor, as though the student himself were acting.

This wasn’t a fluke. Kim had learned this after years of flying, training, and of course, by observing her own flying instructor perform what she calls a ‘masterful, emergency landing’. Her instructor had stayed calm and unruffled throughout the emergency. She had followed lead. And this retrospective memory (and hundreds of hours of training) had helped her land safely.

Making Learning Count 

Can you imagine the power of these experiences when they get converted to meta memory? Or the cumulative strength of teams when these individuals come together? What brilliant successes could they script for their leaders and businesses? The potential is astonishing.

I’m no neuroscientist or pilot. I’m a student of life and work in teams, like most of you. And I believe every team can make that journey from good to great by embodying these lessons. What stories of trust do you have? Please post a comment below.

BW Anitha Aswth Portfolio

Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams. 


2 thoughts on “3 Lessons on Trust from Great Pilots and Aerobatic Teams”

  1. That is so cool that so many things could be learned through aerobatics. I especially like how you noted that trust and looking out for each other is how those two pilots were able to land safely after their collision. It seems like there’s a lot to be learned from this, maybe I should look into an aerobatics training program so that I can not only learn how to fly like that but also build up trust.

    1. Hi Amanda! Thank you for taking the time to post a comment. There’s so much we can learn from aerobatics display teams and none more important than trust. I love that you’re considering learning how to fly! Good luck and see you around in our community!

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