In the morning of 4 November 2010, Pilot and Captain, Richard de Crespigny, took on board four hundred and forty passengers unto the Qantas Airways flight 32 in Singapore.
His task was a routine procedure—takeoff and navigate the aircraft safely for eight hours back to Sydney, Australia.
As expected, everything went to plan. The plane took off perfectly from the runway, rising at a steady pace up to 2,000 feet.
At 7,400 feet—4 minutes after takeoff—Richard de Crespigny and the passengers heard a loud explosion outside the aircraft.
Immediately, the red alarm system within the cockpit started to ring loudly and worrying thoughts flashed through Richard’s mind,”was it one or two engines that just caught fire.”
It didn’t matter because there was no time to think and get distracted. As the plane started to shake, De Crespigny pressed the altitude hold button to ease the thrust on the engines and stabilize the aircraft—but the second engine was already on fire.
De Crespigny looked over at his computer display dashboard, which was now covered in red lights. The plane was on the verge of a catastrophic crash—out of 22 systems on the airplane, 21 of them were affected.
The first and fourth engines degraded two levels in thrust level. The supply of electricity on the left hand side of the aircraft had failed with both of the aircraft wings damaged by multiple holes.
50% of the hydraulic system stopped working and the brakes underneath the wings were reduced to 30% braking efficiency.
Out of 11 tanks in the aircraft fuel system, only 3 of them were functioning.
The damage was so bad that it would later be described as one of the worst midair aircraft mechanical disasters in modern aviation.
Meanwhile, back in the cockpit, De Crespigny pressed the heading hold button to keep the aircraft moving in a straight trajectory, after he tried to navigate the aircraft back to the Singapore runway, whilst avoiding crashing into the mountains.
Nothing seemed to be working—the speed of the aircraft was about to reach a breaking point that it couldn’t handle.
Passengers were screaming in panic. The entire crew within the cockpit was silent, whilst the alarm kept ringing at a deafening loud level.
This was the make or break moment. De Crespigny had to stay focused and avoid distractions, otherwise, the aircraft, himself and 440 passengers would vanish within seconds.
De Crespigny and his copilots quickly assessed how much runway they needed to land safely. 3,900 metres of asphalt in total was required—4,000 metres was the longest available at Singapore—anymore over this tiny margin would be catastrophic.
De Crespigny grabbed the thrust levers and throttle to steady the plane. As the plane descended onto the runway, a mechanical voice from the alarm screamed:“STALL! STALL! STALL!”
De Crespigny ignored the distractions and stayed focused. He steered the rear wheels of the plane to touch the ground, whilst forcing the front wheels onto the runway tarmac.
After two thousand metres of skidding across the runway, the plane didn’t seem to be slowing down. A little more distance was left before it would fall over the runway, flip over and kill everybody on board.
With just one hundred metres left, the plane finally slowed down and came to a halt. The Qantas Flight 32—the most damaged Airbus A380 at the time–had just landed safely.
De Crespigny was applauded as a hero for rescuing all of four hundred and sixty-nine lives. Till date, the Qantas Flight 32 incident has been cited as a study on how to stay focused and avoid distractions during emergency situations.
Since then, the flight landing has been simulated hundreds of times and each time it’s run through, the plane would crash and all the passengers would die.
So, what made this scenario different? and how did Richard de Crespigny and his team stay focused, despite the distracting emergency alarm ringing over 125 times throughout the flight, passengers in panic, mechanical failures throughout the aircraft system and little to no time to think?
And most importantly, how can you use similar strategies to stay focused and avoid distractions during your everyday life and work?
Let’s dive in.
The Secret to Staying Focused and Avoiding Distractions
At the time of the incident, Qantas international pilots were required to pass four simulator tests per year and complete annual safety procedures.
By the time the Qantas airline incident occurred, Richard de Crespigny had completed more checks in the A380 simulator than landings in the aircraft itself.
De Crespigny had been trained in a way of thinking called “situational awareness” or “mental models.”
In other words, he taught himself to tell stories about what’s happening as it occurs—to prepare his mind to distinguish what’s important from what isn’t in an emergency situation.
Even before the flight, De Crespigny was drilling his crew with mental models of ‘what if’ scenarios in case of emergency:
“Imagine thereʼs an engine failure. Whereʼs the first place youʼll look?”
He told his copilot, Mark, “if you see everyone looking down, I want you to look up. If weʼre all looking up, you look down. Weʼll all probably make at least one mistake this flight. Youʼre each responsible for catching them.”
During periods of high levels of distractions and pressure—like the Qantas flight 32 disaster—these mental models can help you to stay focused and productive.
For example, during the QF32 flight, the co-pilots were at a loss as to what emergency issues to prioritize because each time they fixed one problem another would pop up instantly causing overwhelm.
To resolve this, De Crespigny did something interesting. Instead of trying to figure out what to do next, he took a deep breath, let go of the controls, closed his eyes and started to imagine the aircraft as the Cessna—the single-engine airplane he had first learned to fly with.
The Cessna is a much smaller plane compared to the Airbus, but it has similar basic components.
De Crespigny turned to his copilots, and said, “we need to stop focusing on whatʼs wrong and start paying attention to whatʼs still working.”
In that moment, De Crespigny made a choice to use a mental model that would help him stay focused instead of reacting to the never-ending stream of emergencies.
As De Crespigny later noted, “I had a picture in my head that contained the basics, and thatʼs all I needed to land the plane.”
As the plane started to descend onto the runway for landing, the squealer alarm —an alarm so loud that it could revive unconscious pilots—started to ring loudly. De Crespigny turned to his colleagues and told them to ignore the distraction.
He told them to think of the plane as a Cessna because if they were flying a Cessna the alarm wouldn’t go off.
These mental models helped De Crespigny and his crew to stay focused and prioritize the right actions for a safe landing.
Use Mental Models to Stay Focused
Even though, we’ve never been in the same position as De Crespigny, you can probably relate to his battle with overwhelm from information overload and distractions under pressure.
In this digital world full of distractions, we’re constantly bombarded by email, message and social media notifications. On top of this, we have to deal with the daily random requests from our friends, family and work colleagues.
If you don’t have strong mental models or “stories”, you’ll get easily distracted and waste your productive hours reacting to “emergencies”—much like the copilot in the QF32 flight.
One of the best ways to use mental models for better focus under pressure, is to develop the habit of visualizing yourself dealing with distractions before they occur and then simply repeating that story in your mind as the incident happens.
When distractions pop up during your day, your subconscious mind will work to help you recreate the scenario from your mental model because you’ve prepared it to expect what to see.
For example, De Crespigny later noted that he was calm and focused during the flight because he had mentally visualised and trained for engine failures in flight simulations hundreds of times.
When the plane engines exploded, he used this mental model to focus on the routine safety checks he’d visualised, instead of reacting to the random emergencies in front of him.
Similarly, you could visualise your day before it begins, or at least have a plan in place to deal with any distractions that could kill your focus.
Envision the scenario of your phone ringing whilst you’re writing or studying, or daydreaming during meetings, or colleagues interrupting your focus during working hours, or your favourite tv show coming on just before you leave the house to go to the gym.
In all of these scenarios or any other distractions you can relate to, a good mental model will help you to stay focused on the most important task at hand.
The Choice of Staying Focused
Most people spend their entire lives in reaction mode, constantly responding to the distractions and demands of the world without staying focused on the things that are important for achieving their goals.
But, just like De Crespigny, the most focused and productive people manage and train their minds to proactively focus on what’s important and ignore the distractions in any given scenario.
They tell themselves stories about what they expect to see ahead of time and redirect their attention to match these scenarios in real-time.
They build good mental models, which when paired with a good environment, helps them to stay extremely productive at what they do.
So ask yourself these questions: what do I expect to happen today? What kind of distractions and emergencies could pop up and how do I plan to deal with these?
No matter how many distractions you face every day, just like De Crespigny and his crew on the QF32 flight, you can train your brain to stay focused and avoid distractions even if you’re under pressure.
Make a choice to spend 10 minutes every morning building your mental model for the day. Then, who knows? You could be “landing planes” safely in your life and work.
1. Credit to Charles Duhigg, where I originally found the story in his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life.
2. Story of the QF32 flight in detail by Richard de Crespigny.