I will never forget my first long-distance solo flight. Even though I was being “graded” – the big cross-country solo is a requirement for licensure – I opted for the longer version of the test so I could just be up there longer, so I could really and truly experience a real sense of the air up there.

The weather was perfect. No bumps, no wind, just enough clouds to add to an already impressive God’s eye view of southeastern Pennsylvania. I only wish my instructor were with me to take the controlsI know more experienced pilots might disagree, but I loved flying the Evektor SportStar. Other than maybe the Bristell (coincidentally designed by the same guy!), the SportStar is just about the perfect “touring” airplane. Its low wings and clear cockpit allowed me a true “big picture” – I could see everything. Maybe more than everything. (If you’ve been up there, you know what I mean.)

But, flying solo, I had to keep up with all the little things that go into keeping the plane in the air. Let’s face it. If the plane won’t stay in the air up there, it’s kinda hard to fully experience it.

The dichotomy makes for much more than a merely interesting metaphysical discussion. To truly experience the air up there, a pilot must be both a wide angle and a zoom lens. He has to see the big picture AND keep focused on the myriad individual tasks at hand. The perfect sunset isn’t so perfect if it distracts a pilot from completing even one step in a single sequence.

During my first solo flight to Cape May, N.J. (hey, if you’re gonna fly, might as well be to a beach!), I realized that flying that airplane actually was a lot like running a business.

Successful business leaders are those people who keep their eyes on the big picture – these are the folks with vision. But the really successful business leaders combine their wide-angle vision with a sharp zoom lens. They know when and where to focus on the nuts and bolts of the operation. They realize that it takes more than a clear vision – it takes obsessive dedication to the proper steps in the proper order to make that vision a reality.

I find the same is true about life itself.

There will always be turbulence. There will always be unpredictable pitches and rolls. Life can be a wild ride, where there is no such thing as a guaranteed smooth landing.

One particularly perfect afternoon, I had my SportStar out practicing takeoffs and landings (they don’t like it when student pilots attempt touch-and-go’s). On my third or fourth landing, Life reminded me that there are, in fact, no guarantees.

Moments after touchdown, and the tower was welcoming me to KLNS and suggesting I exit the runway at Junction C. Unfortunately, I blew right past Junction C before I could even acknowledge the instructions. You see, my throttle had jammed, and instead of slowing down, I was cruising along at about 50 knots – barely below TAKEOFF speed!

I had to decide fast whether to stand on the brakes and hope I could fix the throttle or punch it back to full power and abort the landing, all with the tower screaming in my ears to acknowledge my instructions.

I decided to keep the plane on the ground, figuring that a throttle that would not power down was also a throttle that would not power UP.

I literally stood on the brakes and tried to keep the plane centered on the runway while one-handing the throttle control to see if I could loosen it up. With one hand on the yoke and one hand on the throttle and both eyes on the ever-decreasing runway ahead, I was only able to let the tower know what was going on as I made the final turn off the runway, and even that at a speed I consider totally unsafe (but safer than continuing through the fence at the end).

During the after-action with my flight instructor, the tower and other interested parties, I was second-guessed to the Nth degree. Why didn’t I just abort the landing, go to a safe altitude and call for help? Why didn’t I know the throttle was wonky before I took the plane out? Why didn’t I alert the tower there was a problem? Why oh why oh why?

In the end, consensus was that I’d done the right things, in the right order.

I’ve seen what happens when people let go of their metaphorical controls, unsure of how to react. I’ve experienced firsthand the frightening sensation of not knowing what to do next. I get knots in the pit of my stomach just thinking about it.

Yes, it’s a weak analogy. Life is not an airplane. Life does not come equipped with a backup parachute or an emergency checklist But my old SportStar did. And Step One on that emergency list applies to EVERY situation Life could possibly throw at you:

Fly the plane.

Before checking the fuel levels, before searching for a nearby landing spot, before calling for help on the radio, or even attempting a restart, pilots are taught to “fly the airplane.”

Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.

In that order.

Regardless of what happens, don’t take your hands off the controls! (Aviate.) Yes, it’s going to be a rough ride. But how much rougher will it be if nobody’s in control?

Even if you can’t quite make out the big picture, you must stay focused on the task at hand! (Navigate.) Know where you are. Know where you’ve been. Know where you’re going. In life, and in business, you can’t get there any other way.

And please, don’t hesitate – ever – to ask for help. (Communicate.)

One way or another, we’re all on this ride together.

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