You're sitting in your office talking to a prospective student when the phone rings. There's been an accident. A bad one. Your heart goes to your throat. Who, what aircraft, how many aboard? What the... No firm details yet, but the Sheriff's Department is on scene and it's not looking good. They'll keep you posted.
Your mind is a blur. Your next call is from the local NBC affiliate. Can you confirm that the fatal accident involved one of your aircraft? You don't know what to say. How can the TV station know more about the accident than you do? You stammer a nonsensical answer about not having all the information yet. Your world has just changed. What do you do now?
Unfortunately, this scenario plays out all too frequently when an aircraft goes down. Grief, worry, and fear form an emotional soup that severely limits your ability to think clearly and act rationally. This is where your ability to manage the situation (or not) can have far-ranging consequences, both for your flight school and yourself.
Flight training professionals who have experienced this will tell you that having a written plan for dealing with a bad accident can make all the difference. Just as a checklist can go a long way toward saving a panicked pilot, so can an action plan keep the post-accident process moving in the right direction. This plan should designate which team members are responsible for talking to the authorities, media, insurance companies, and attorneys. It should be reviewed and updated periodically as staff changes occur.
The first thing you do when learning of a major accident is to dig out that that action plan and start down the steps:
The following weeks and months will be painful, spent conducting damage control and dealing with the legal action that will likely ensue. Expect to make several trips to attorney’s offices for depositions and to review investigation documents. Both your insurance company and attorney have been through this before, so follow their advice.
Your goals throughout the process should be to see to it that families and others are treated compassionately and with the utmost respect, while at the same time protecting your business interests. Done properly, you will get through this with just bad memories and several lessons learned. Done poorly, the management of this accident can have devastating consequences to your business and, by extension, your personal life.
Bottom line: Create a good action plan. Put it in writing. Share it with key members of your team so everybody is on the same page if that dreaded call comes through. Then hope and pray that it just becomes another waste of paper in a binder on your bookshelf.
William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer in Southern California.