My Plane Crash and Lessons For Leadership

Tony Hughes

My Plane Crash and Lessons For Leadership

I was a pioneer in the ultralight movement in Australia and owned a small aerobatic biplane. My passion for flying was tempered with a healthy respect for the dangers of aviation and I knew that deaths in sport aircraft were mostly attributed to 'pilot error' or the lack of correct 'owner maintenance'. Usually a polite way of explaining inexperience, over-confidence or shoddy modifications leading to catastrophe.

On the day of my crash I was part of a group of 5 aircraft travelling cross-country to a fly-in, cruising at 2000 feet above a huge plantation pine forest. I was at the rear and slightly above the others. Everything was normal - then it happened. The engine screamed to maximum revs and the needle on the tachometer swung wildly beyond the red-line. I immediately urged the nose down to maintain airspeed while reducing the throttle. The engine idled and I slowly reintroduced power but it raced away again with little throttle input. The propeller was simply free-wheeling in the air-stream and it was obvious that something in the drive system had failed.

The twisting narrow dirt roads below were tell-tales that the terrain was treacherous but in the distance ahead, the forest ended and semi-cleared scrub took over. A little further to the left of the shortest route out of the forest was a cleared semi-rural area that looked viable. I should be able to make it to the clearing, but if I can't I'll adjust my glide-path to the right and land in the scrub, I thought.

My father's words echoed in my head: "Any landing you walk away from is a good one."Don't try to save the plane; stay calm and you'll live, I thought. For a brief moment I toyed with the idea of deploying the ballistic parachute which was connected to the aircraft in the event of structural failure. But the vision of an uncontrolled spiral decent into a pine forest, with the aerodynamics of the wings fighting the parachute, had no appeal. I killed the engine, switched-off the electrics, tightened my seat belt, fastened the chinstrap under my helmet and offered a distracted prayer while I focused on managing the glide. No radio and no-one noticed by forced descent - I was on my own.

My plane had a 16' wingspan and was a home-built, flown under Australian Air Navigation Orders (ANOs) for 'ultralight' sport aviation. We were largely self-regulated and the rules stated that we were always to stay out of controlled air space and below 500 feet. But height is safety - it buys you time if there is an engine problem. This is why I was cruising at 2,000 feet but well below the 10,000 feet controlled airspace above.

I had lost about 500 feet since the drive system failure and was heading for the clearing just beyond the edge of the forest. Keep it flying, maintain airspeed, don't stall, stay focused, relax. All I could hear was the haunting sound of wind whistling through the rigging wires but I was steadfastly calm. I had made dozens of practice forced landings in previous ultralight aircraft and on two occasions had real emergencies during take-off. On both occasions I had managed to walk away and I believed I could do it again - if I maintained control.

Now at 1000 feet, I was feeling decidedly nervous about my ability to make it to the clearing on my current glide path. At 500 feet it became apparent that I wasn't going to make it. I made the decision to abort the clearing and moved the stick to the right and headed for the nearest exit point from the forest where there was a small dam in semi-cleared scrub. The tops of the pine trees were looming and on my current glide slope I was going to be 70 feet short of escaping the forest, but I still had good airspeed. I focused on the tip of the trees 50 feet in from the boundary where I would begin to wash-off air-speed before finally escaping the forest. At least, that was the plan.

I was now down to 100 feet above the tree-tops and 150 feet short of the last of the pine trees. I had 55 knots and I eased the stick back, decreasing my rate of decent, but now sacrificing airspeed. Stall was always preceded by sluggish controls and would occur at 32 knots; the point at which the wings failed to produce adequate lift. I knew that stall-induced spins were always fatal close to the ground.

My air-speed was down to 40 knots and I was holding a reasonable sink-rate with 25 feet to go. The controls were beginning to feel mushy; 35 knots! I pushed forward on the stick to improve airspeed and in doing so gently brushed the tip of the last pine tree. Airspeed - I must get more airspeed! I only had 60 feet of height with a small dam in front of me and light bush beyond. I pushed the stick forward and dived for the dam to create more airspeed and lift - pull back!

The relative silence of flight was shattered. My tail wheel snapped off with the impact of my heavy three-point landing and the suspension was hammered. After careering only fifteen feet, my main wheels dropped into a deep bulldozer rut that had been formed during dam construction and the whole under-cart was torn away. The fuselage skidded forward on its belly and lower wings. The propeller and right engine bearer snapped causing the engine to collapse, destroying the firewall which partially lodged against my right leg. The journey was abruptly halted when the lower left wing collided into a hidden tree stump. The wing-spar was snapped close to the fuselage and my landing had come to an abrupt end only forty feet beyond the dam. The picture in this post is the actual crash site.

The silence was eerie but I could hear my heart pounding with adrenalin. I wondered if I was okay and wiggled my toes, successfully confirming that I had feeling. The splintered fire-wall and engine however was pressing against my right ankle. I tried to bend my knees but my lower right leg was jammed. I removed my helmet and dropped it to the ground. I noticed helmet paint on the instrument panel and could smell fuel. Petrol vapour is explosive and I focused on how to extricate myself but removing my right leg seemed to require the agility of a contortionist. I twisted and leveraged myself out leaving my shoe behind. The fuel tank had not ruptured but the feed line had been split, fortunately not dripping onto the exhaust. There was very little fuel due to the fact that I had has closed the tank valve in the air.

As I looked back at the pine forest from in front of the aircraft, I remember feeling euphoric. Great landing - I'm alive and uninjured, I thought. I then walked toward the forest and stood on the dam, surveying my makeshift runway. It was not a pretty sight, seeing the wrecked plane from behind. Five feet either side of my chosen path were enormous half-buried trees covered by light re-growth, making them invisible. I surely would have shattered my legs if I had impacted any of these head on. This was the era before mobile phones, and I walked for about forty minutes to a remote farm-house to be greeted with suspicion before being allowed to use the phone to call for assistance.

I've come to understand that the outcomes we experience in life are largely determined by the way we think, feel and act. Bad luck is often not that at all. Every profession has an ethos, a code, and tried and true set of beliefs and values that drive it forward. There is no better example of continuous improvement and leadership excellence than aviation. Airbus, Qantas and QF32 are great examples with Captain Richard de Crespigny and the flight crew of QF32 embodying the very best of leadership design and behaviour.

In my own time as a private pilot, there were truisms I embraced: All the runway behind you is of no use at all (always take the time to taxi all the way to the end to provide as much runway in front of you as possible. If you have an engine problem, you'll be able to abort or land more safely). You only have too much fuel on board if you're on fire (always have maximum reserves in case you get lost, the head-wind is stronger than anticipated or the weather turns bad and you have to find an alternate field).

I attribute my survival to a number of things; one of them being a definition of success for forced landings that my father taught me: "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one."

There was another definition that also helped save my life, imparted by my flying school instructor. Just before I went solo he asked me: "What's the definition of confidence?"

I thought for a few moments and gave him what I believed was a good answer: "When skill and experience come together."

He shook his head. "No. Confidence is the feeling you have before you understand the situation." He went on to say that almost every recreational pilot who crashes, does so because they were over-confident and too casual with their pre-flight and weather checks. "Never over-rate your ability and never take anything for granted - dirty fuel, an insect in a pitot tube, anything."

I chose to own that definition of confidence for flying and business - it has saved my life and won many deals. It has helped keep me safe and successful because I constantly think about what could go wrong and I seek to be vigilant and prepared. I regard confidence as the paradise of fools.

My father first taught me to fly and beyond attitude and definitions, he emphasized the necessity for both knowledge and experience. He educated me about engine failures by encouraging me to experience them in controlled circumstances. I had glided my plane all the way onto the runway many times. Practice, experience, correct thinking, and a positive attitude, all played a role in my successful landing. The way we feel about ourselves and our purpose in life largely determines how we respond to opportunity and adversity. We need to be positively expectant, yet our confidence can be misplaced. Years later I reflected on what I had learned from flying, and how my flying instructor's definition could apply to business and all aspects of life.

In truth, my aerial mishap was no accident - it was 100% my fault. Months earlier I had broken a propeller on a heavy landing that I mismanaged. I replaced the propeller but did not pay attention to the drive-system. A hairline fracture had been created in a $2 bolt and it was only a matter of time before it failed - I should have replaced it. Sound familiar? Just like Air Crash Investigations, catastrophe is often the cumulative effect of small problems or innocuous cascading events. Here are the five lessons for leadership that flying has taught me:

  • Pay attention to the detail - it's where the devil lives. Strategy and planning means nothing without great execution.
  • Be positively paranoid, always think about what could go wrong and be prepared for every contingency.
  • Always consider the unintended consequences of an action or event; think things through.
  • Remain calm, think clearly, and maintain situation awareness when things go wrong. Leadership demands clarity.
  • Stay on task, filter the noise and don't let distractions take you away from what's important.


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at


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