Back Story QF32 p 159 – Startle Effect, Fight, Flight, Play Dead and Deliberate Practice

“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” Sunrise through the A380’s windshield (Title – thanks to Meat Loaf. Image courtesy Richard de Crespigny)

Our reaction to stress and panic has evolved as a successful survival strategy.

Imagine a panic situation such as a lion attacking us.

Cheetah – Africa – 2009 (Courtesy Sophia Champion de Crespigny)

Deep within our brains, sitting atop the brain stem, the limbic system is the first set of brain structures to comprehend and recognise the sight and the roar of the approaching lion and it responds in a way that has protected the earliest species of horses and rabbits, and man. The limbic system sends off alerts to the medulla that signals the adrenal gland to release adrenalin. Adrenalin increases our heart-rate and the blood flow is prioritised to the muscles and brain.   An activated limbic system will induce a sense of panic that if not regulated will induce a fight or flight response.

But panic is the worst response we desire from a stressed pilot in a modern aircraft! The physiological response to stress that helps us evade a lion, is of no use in our high-tech world where there is more time to act, and survival depends upon the pilot staying calm, interpreting the systems, managing the team and consciously reasoning to negotiate the best solution.

Qantas 1940’s cabin attendant uniform. Constellation steps. Courtesy: Richard de Crespigny

Fortunately humans can reduce their predisposition to stress and panic. The solution is to enrich our brain’s cortex, where our consciousness  resides. If the cortex can reason that a stressful situation is not dire and that a solution is available, then the cortex will dampen the limbic systems’ response to stress and so reduce our tendency to panic.

So how do we enrich our cortex?

Deliberate practice builds up in our cortex our knowledgebase of memories and experiences, things that give us ability and confidence; making us “bullet proof”, not “gun shy”. Deliberate practice is the best method to prepare our bodies to counter the unexpected, such as a black swan event. The result is the same for us as it was for; Mozart playing the piano since the age of four, or for Roger Federer warming up before every game; or for Apollo 13 commander James Lovell who practiced failures and “free return trajectories” in the NASA simulators.

Deliberate practice enhances ability and confidence, reduces the startle effect, panic and improves performance.

Africa – 2009 (Courtesy Sophia de Crespigny)

A friend recently asked me:  “What do you think happened in your mind when you heard the engine explode?”.    My technical answer probably surprised him:

My brain instantly became fully alerted. The brain stem instantly tuned my brain to its maximum activity. My medulla (that activates my sympathetic nervous system) would have caused adrenalin to pour into my blood-stream to prepare my body to fight, or to flee. At the same time my pre-frontal cortex that sits atop my brain would have received signals of the problem. The cortex would have found a match of the sounds of the explosions and vibrations and sirens, these patterns etched into the grey matter by past experiences and deliberate practice in the aircraft simulators. So the cortex would have sent a modulating response back to my medulla saying “Hey, I’ve heard, seen and felt this before, I’ve trained for this, I know what to do!”

My cortex reasoned that our lives were not threatened and throttled back the limbic system response to prevent the startle effect, fight, flight or play dead from overpowering our rational mind.   This is clearly a good case of “mind over matter” where deliberate practice and experience provided our thinking brain (the cerebral cortex) with skills sufficient to bullet proof us against the simple failure.

 There was no startle effect, no panic on the flight deck.   The cortex took and maintained control.  We were able to “sit on our hands and initially do nothing”.  Then we knew what we had to do.

2015 10 Oct 1 - 065_1 (1000x563)

Could not all fears and phobias be rationalised and resolved similarly?

In our case, for the many teams that worked through our event, our knowledge, training, experience and deliberate practice provided us all with the tools to handle the emergency and prevent the stressful situation from startling us into a conditions of panic or playing dead.   We all kept our composure on the flight deck because we knew what we had to do.

Then, what I did instinctively might surprise many; because I ignored the warning horns, the red lights on the panels above an below and the ECAM checklists on the centre panels.  I focused only on one issue, the first commandment in aviation – FLY THE AEROPLANE, with all reasoning provided by my cortex.  We commenced the engine failure drills and checklists only after safe flight was guaranteed, probably twenty seconds after the initial explosions.

I’ll write more about mind over matter, deliberate practice, fears, phobias, the limbic system responses and the startle effect  later ….

Courtesy: Richard de Crespigny


  1. Derek Louey · · Reply

    Thanks Richard. Being a fan of the series of Aircrash Investigations, the episodes often deal with cases of pilots incorrectly dealing with high altitude stalls, usually with disastrous results. Typically there are additional factors such as pilot fatigue, time pressure, bad weather etc yet it seems that the decision-making in these incidents are met with some incredulity from aviation critics. The basic mantra of increased power and stick forward is often ignored.

    Is it an issue of incorrect foundational training, inadequate or misplaced simulation training or poor psychological preparation for these events? What do you believe is the solution to addressing one or more of these issues?

    1. Derek I think the causes include everything that you have mentioned plus a lot more. Flying aircraft has continued to become more complex as a consequence of the advancing technology and flying environment. When we teach pilots these new skills, we must not ignore the basic foundation skills that need to be reinforced and kept current in case of automation failure.

      Although flying is becoming increas ingly safe, we must remember that the threats in aviation continue to increase and that the absence of an incident does not imply that the threat has been mitigated.

      In the words of famous scientist Richard Feynman: “When playing Russian Roulette, the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next”

      1. Derek Louey · ·

        Too much to learn and not enough time to learn it?

      2. Derek Louey · ·

        What would be the main cons of manually flying an Airbus in direct law routinely?

      3. Flying an Airbus in Direct Law boosts the pilot’s knowledge, skills and confidence of operating the aircraft in its most degraded modes. This confidence will give resilience from the fear response of fight/flight/play dead in the event that the flight control laws degrade during a later event.

        The cons of flying in direct law are:
        – little if no protections (speed, angle of attack, bank, g, turbulence)
        – reduced dynamic stability (in extreme cases the A380 becomes unstable)
        – no reduction of flight control secondary effects
        – harder to fly

        Pilots should be unafraid to fly in Direct Law. Indeed I think that pilots should fly direct law circuits in the simulators as part of their normal recurrency training.

      4. Richard: “Pilots should be unafraid to fly in Direct Law. Indeed I think that pilots should fly direct law circuits in the simulators as part of their normal recurrency training.”

        Totally agree!!

  2. Dale Brooker · · Reply

    Great Read
    I just gave it to my Dad to read ex 75 squadron, Butterworth, Williamtown etc.
    All familiar, so its great to read as well as the Qantas side of it.
    Well done!
    I have a wife who hates flying and goes into panic mode in turbulence. We did a dual A380 flight recently and the differences were amazing. She actually enjoyed most of the flights.

  3. This is interesting. I often think of myself if I were in this situation. If I found myself in the same situation as you (as unfamiliar as that would be), I honestly think I would be as calm and collected – primarily maybe because my own life is at risk if I were to go to pieces. I would have no choice but to work through the tasks required to land that plane.

    Conversely, do you think you and the team would would have been so calm if you were controlling/piloting the plane from the ground? That is, if you didn’t have any personal interest in bringing that situation to a safe end? That is an interesting thought……Personally, while I have full confidence in myself if I were on the flight deck, I doubt myself in the ground-control scenario, but I’m eager to hear your take on it.

    Richard responds: Interesting thought Adam – I have not conjured up sufficient conclusions to respond other than to suggest that we are still in the early days of automation. Automatic pilots have neither the authority (acceleration or control surface deflections), nor the ability to control the aircraft in flight during very turbulent conditions, so we are still a long time away from seeing the first generation of ground controlled (pilot-less) passenger aircraft.

  4. Mandy Squair · · Reply

    Hi Richard, loved your book and also your 2 interviews with Rod Quinn on ABC radio.

    I come from a family involved with flying – from a great uncle who ran an airline with Charles Kingsford-Smith in WA to a TAA captain uncle. I have the “flying bug” and love planes and airports. I’ve been on both the Qantas and Singapore Airlines A380s and find they are so comfortable. Lovely planes. With thanks for your book, Mandy

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