Taming the Squirrel

Long before the reports will conclude what happened to the right engine of United Airlines Flight 328 Boeing 777 aircraft which failed catastrophically on February 20th, much discussion has revolved around the pilot’s mayday calls and a human phenomenon known as “startle effect”.

The discussion is prompted by the somewhat disjointed nature of the pilot’s first response on the radio after they experienced a large bang, significant engine vibration and multiple cockpit warnings 4 minutes after take-off.  The cockpit voice recording tells a story of the incredible self-discipline pilots are trained into that enables them to handle immediate physical threat that may very well have hijacked their brains.  (The version linked to here doesn’t account for time between calls made)

In aviation, the Startle Effect is defined as an uncontrollable, automatic reflex that is elicited by exposure to a sudden, intense event that violates a pilot’s expectations.  Often, pilots may not recall actions taken in the first few seconds after an immediate threat is registered.  In layman’s terms, it’s referred to as our “Fight or Flight” reflex, and very literally induces a physiological reaction within our bodies that we don’t have any control over.  Adrenaline and cortisol enter our blood stream, causing our heart rate and breathing to increase.  This feeds our muscles allowing an immediate physical response to the threat.  Physical response is prioritised over mental cognition, and for a few seconds, it feels as if your brain is offline.

This is why none of us sound particularly intelligent when trying to deliver a snappy retort to someone’s insult, or why we may gulp air like a fish rather than responding when asked to deliver information in a meeting that we didn’t know we needed to prepare.

Pilots are trained to expect and overcome this reflex by mentally and figuratively “sitting on their hands” for the first few seconds after a threat.  No sudden movements or inputs, no disengaging of the autopilot if the aircraft is still under control etc.  Observe.  Breathe.  Take in what’s going on around you.  And then respond.

So, what is the correlation between those first few seconds after threat that pilots are trained to manage, and the squirrel brain that most of the world seems to be developing and dealing with at the moment?  Why are we finding it so hard to make decisions?  Why does everything take twice as long?  Why do we have half the energy, and a seriously reduced capacity to deal with stress and pressure?  Why does it take so much more to order our thoughts than it used to?

Our physiological response to perceived threat is to immediately release adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream, so that we can engage the primeval response of staying to fight or running away.  Adrenaline and cortisol are intended to be short-action catalysts, not long-term solutions.  What happens when we have been under pressure (threat) and continuous change for an extended period of time is that our bodies and minds start to experience adrenal fatigue.  This physical and mental fatigue, coupled with the depletion of our emotions and spirit (which we’d normally recharge with all the things that we’re not allowed to do at the moment like seeing our friends, playing golf, or traveling) is taking its toll and producing undesirable results.

When pilots respond, they do so in a calculated manner.  It’s referred to as “Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.”, and this calculated response can help us deal with our own fatigue and depletion.


In the cockpit, this means “fly the airplane”.  Keep the aircraft straight and level.

Go back to basics.  Do the simplest thing well so that order is maintained while you figure out what to do next.  Prioritise the thing that’s going to keep you and your environment steady and under control.

Outside of the cockpit, in life and business, this means referring back to bedrock.  To the things you know for sure.  This is when the work you did before to establish the value system by which you operate, and to put systems and processes in place that work for you pays the most dues.  Remember who you are and how you do things and allow those values to guide you.  Focus on checking the systems and processes that back your success.  Acknowledge that you and your people are far more likely to make mistakes right now than any other time previously and take advantage of checks and measures to guard against that.


When you and your immediate environment are under control, look up.  Having had a good look at where you are, now decide where you need to go next.  It’s imperative that you “aviate” before you try and “navigate”.  Without control of the squirrel, it will want to go in many directions all at once.  Reduced energy deployed in too many directions means we won’t get far no matter what we try and do.  What we need is clarity of direction so that we can apply that energy down a single, or few, vectors – thus allowing each vector more magnitude.

James Clear’s quote stuck with me this week: “Goals are for people who care about winning once.  Systems are for people who care about winning repeatedly.”  Goals are about short-term focus – channelling your energy and focus into a few (not too many) pointed vectors that allow you to make specific headway.  Checking and implementing systems as you go allows you to turn that headway into sustainable momentum.


Once you’ve stabilized and decided which direction(s) to act in, the next step is to communicate that action and intent.  Shared, clear communication allows that intent to ripple outwards to the others who can and need to contribute to the outcome.  In the cockpit, that’s other crew, air traffic control and passengers.  Who do you need to communicate with to make sure what you’re trying to achieve happens?

Communication also allows us to share energy, and in terms of our prolonged exposure to change and stress, this sharing of energy is a vital ingredient to maintaining the energy to carry on.  If we’ve proved one thing this last year, it’s that most of us don’t do well in isolation.  When we communicate, we not only share our intentions and needs, but we discover we’re not alone.  Others are also struggling to tame the squirrel in their heads.  Others are also hanging on by a thread or are experiencing significant “engine vibration” within themselves.  Some have had a wheel or two fall off and being able to laugh at ourselves while we put the wheels back on is incredibly powerful.

In summary, aviation has a plan for taming the squirrel in our heads.  It’s intended for short-term use, but it’s just as effective when we’re suffering from the effects of prolonged stress, change, fatigue and depletion.

Aviate.  Navigate.  Communicate.

by Christen Killick

March 8th, 2021

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.