Grace under pressure

Summer break(s), the anniversary of a story of heroism and tragedy, and 7 other things worth your time.

Look at that. I’d planned to take a week or so off—and, well, it turned into two weeks.

My wife and daughter and I were in New Hampshire visiting family, hanging out on the lake near the house, and basically enjoying being anywhere other than home.

(I should mention: we had negative coronavirus tests before we left, and we wore masks constantly. Plus, the area we were visiting is quite rural to begin with. We were very careful.)

I really needed this time away, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. The truth is that I was getting burned out, maybe even more than I realized, having written at least one article or newsletter (often several) almost every single day, weekends included, since at least August 2018.

I’m going to take a couple more breaks like this — shorter, I think — before the summer is out.

Besides the chance to get away, I needed time (and need a bit more) to think more about my plans for this whole thing—meaning Understandably.

More on that to come—and I’ll have some questions for those of you who were kind enough to sign up for my advisory group. Finally, thanks to all the readers who checked in to see if I was doing OK.

I am indeed, and I hope you are too.

Make it a runway, huh?

Part of why I wanted to be sure to pick this up again now is that Sunday marks the anniversary (31 years ago) of a tragic accident that I remember at the time, and that’s been on my calendar. I think it reveals heroism and grace under pressure.

I’m talking about United Airlines flight 232 on July 19, 1989, from Denver to Chicago. After an engine explosion severed the DC-10's hydraulic lines, leaving the crew with almost no way to control the plane, they still managed to put it down in a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. 

Although 112 people lost their lives, 184 others survived—and much of the credit went to some incredible piloting and leadership on the part of Capt. Al Haynes and his crew.

With all hydraulics severed in the engine explosion, they figured out as they flew how to to control the plane partially by applying uneven throttle to the remaining engines on each side.

Here’s what people (including the NTSB) cite when they try to explain how they managed to save a majority of the passengers:

  1. First, the crew stayed calm. Listening to the cockpit voice recordings (link below), it's striking how calm and polite Haynes and his crew are—”please” and “thanks” over and over, for example. And, as they approached the airport, Haynes had the presence of mind to insist to the tower: “Whatever you do, keep us away from the city.”

  2. Second, Haynes led effectively. The flight had a three member flight crew, each with thousands of hours of flight time. They also happened to be carrying a a DC-10 instructor as a passenger, who came up to the cockpit to offer assistance. Haynes's use of crew resource management techniques, which in short means that he led in way that encouraged everyone else to speak up and contribute, is a key reason why the tragedy wasn't worse.

  3. Finally, they fought stress with humor. A summary of the transcript (opens as .pdf) of the flight recorder and tower communications shows there were eight breaks for laughter in what has to have been the most stressful possible situation. Perhaps the best line illustrating this comes from the final approach, less than a minute before touchdown:

Sioux City Approach: “United 232 ... You're cleared to land on any runway.”

Captain Haynes: “[Laughter]. Roger. [Laughter.] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?”

Haynes was injured, but he recovered and kept flying for United until he reached mandatory retirement. He gave countless speeches and interviews, blocking out 20 days each month for appearances, until shortly before he passed away last year at the age of 87.

The crew, along with their surviving passengers, held reunions over the years. When Haynes’s daughter needed a bone marrow transplant in 2003, they raised money for the operation.

You can hear part of the recording of Haynes's communications with air traffic control, here. As a warning, this also has video of the crash itself from a distance, as captured by a film crew that happened to be at the airport.

7 other things worth your time

  • High profile Twitter accounts were hacked Wednesday, in what on its face seems like a bitcoin scam, but might be a warning of something much more dangerous. We’re living in a time where politicians make major policy pronouncements, public companies make big announcements, and individual lives can be upended with a viral tweet. The fact that hackers (who might have paid off an insider at Twitter to give them control, according to Vice) where able to access accounts like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Apple, and Barack Obama is hugely concerning, especially just months before the 2020 election. Frankly, if they were sophisticated enough to gain access, the most surprising thing to me is that they used it for something as basic as a crypto scam. (Vice)

  • Airbnb asked people to donate money to support the landlords on its platform. I feel for investors who are in trouble right now, but the response to this on social media —and frankly everywhere else—shows how tone deaf an idea it was. (SF Gate)

  • A children’s book writer—who happens to be a college classmate of mine, although we didn’t actually meet until years later—described her experience becoming a “series machine,” banging out book after book after book while battling cancer. (Nerdy Book Club)

  • The city of Asheville, North Carolina voted to approve reparations for Black residents, as atonement for its role in slavery. (Citizen-Times)

  • Walmart says every customer in every U.S. store is now required to wear a mask. So, I wrote for about who exactly is supposed to enforce this rule when people refuse? (

  • NPR says its ratings are cratering, because professional people who used to listen to their shows during commutes are no longer commuting. Worse for NPR, those listeners say they want to keep working from home after the pandemic is over. (NPR)

  • More than 130 Tesla employees at a California electric car factory that was reopened early in defiance of a coronavirus health order have tested positive for Covid-19, according to a blog claiming to have received company information. (Mercury News)

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