Updated: Sep 11
In 2015, I and several other work colleagues were invited to attend Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within event. The UPW event, as it was known, was scheduled to begin at noon on Thursday, March 5th at the Meadowlands Event Center in Secaucus, NJ, and end Sunday afternoon. To say I did not want to attend would be an understatement, as was my use of the term, ”invited.” The thought of spending four days digging into all my fears and shortcomings with my colleagues and six thousand strangers was a depressing proposition that I tried my best to sidestep, and I almost did, with a little help from Delta Airlines.
The day before the event, I joined a few colleagues in Atlanta for a presentation to a prospective client. I had booked a flight out of Atlanta the next morning with a scheduled arrival at La Guardia at 10:48 a.m. That gave me an hour and twelve minutes to catch a cab to Secaucus. I knew I would probably miss the first hour or so, and I welcomed that.
The weather wasn’t good at LaGuardia, that morning, with snow and freezing fog, and the captain told us to expect possible delays getting in. During my career, I have flown well over a million-and-a-half miles on commercial flights, and I had experience flying small planes myself as a private pilot. I have never been a nervous flyer. The way I saw it, bad weather was simply an inconvenience, and in this case, an inconvenience that I was hoping for. It may have been one of the few times in my life I was hoping the flight would be diverted to some small airport where I would be stuck for the next few days.
Delta 1086 was a McDonald Douglas MD-88 with a 3/2 seating configuration. I had an aisle seat around row 26, just behind the emergency exit over the wing. As we began our descent around 11:00 am, I sat with my seat belt fastened loosely around my waist trying to get my head around the fact that, while I would be a little late, there was no way I would be able to miss Tony Robbins. The view out the window was dense clouds so I listened to the familiar noises as the pilot made his approach into runway 13 at LaGuardia: the reduction of power, the flaps, the landing gear. Minutes passed and still nothing but white out the window. That’s when I started paying a little closer attention. I remember trying to recall the minimum altitude the pilot could descend to before seeing the runway. Isn’t it 200 feet above ground level?
As the plane broke through the clouds, the airport appeared only a few hundred feet below us. We touched down in the center of the runway just a few seconds later, and instantly shot off the left side of the runway at 153 mph. I grabbed the seat in front of me with both hands regretting how loose my seat belt was. I started to let go of the seat in front of me to tighten the nearly useless belt but quickly abandoned the effort out of fear I might be ejected from my seat.
It is amazing how time can slow down in situations like that. My mind was immediately filled with the image of the small airport in Oregon where I had landed my Cessna 182 hundreds of times. I could see deadly hazards everywhere: the radio antenna in the grass just off the runway, the small electronics shack adjacent to it, and the taxiway that ran parallel to the runway where there were frequently planes lined up waiting to take off. Hitting any of those would be disastrous. What if there is a parallel runway with a plane taking off or landing? The thought of Flushing Bay just to the east of the runway never occurred to me until I saw the images of the accident on the television.
The violent pounding seemed to go on forever as we all waited for the almost certain crash that would change our lives forever, or end them. We all knew it was only a split second away. The aircraft finally came to an abrupt stop about 2,000 feet from where it first touched down. Based on the speed and distance traveled I would guess it was less than 10 seconds, but it felt like a lot more. The nose of the plane was elevated with the right wing down as if in a climbing right turn. The only sound I remember when the plane finally stopped was that of the engines winding down and hushed murmurs from the frightened passengers. No one knew what to say. The young lady to my right looked at me with a shocked expression. All I could think to say was, “That was interesting.” A far more glib comment than what I felt inside.
I finally let go of the seat in front of me and began to relax a bit, until they opened the back door and the plane filled with the overpowering smell of jet fuel. We were far from safe. The two forward exits led to the freezing waters of Flushing Bay, fuel was leaking from a ruptured tank in the left wing making that exit unusable, and the rear exit was covered with the leaking jet fuel. That left only one exit for all 132 people on board and all I could think about was the fire that could erupt any moment.
A flight attendant stood up near the front of the airplane with what looked like a child's toy megaphone and announced something completely garbled and unintelligible. If I had seen that in a movie I would have laughed aloud at the absurdity of the airline’s emergency passenger communication system. Fortunately, a passenger halfway between us stood up and yelled to everyone behind her, “She said we will all be going out the exit window over the right wing,” pointing to the exit just in front of me.
I was one of the first few people out of the airplane. I slid down the snow-covered wing and to the ground with the help of a waiting first responder. It took seventeen minutes to get everyone out of the plane through the one available exit. The plane was totaled in the accident, but fortunately, there were only 29 minor injuries.
In its final report on the accident, the NTSB found that the flight crew made the correct decision to continue their approach based on all available data, including the reports of good braking action on runway 13 from two previous aircraft that had landed 16 and 8 minutes before flight 1086. After the accident, the NTSB also verified that runway friction was “sufficient for stopping on the available runway length.”
According to the report, when Flight 1086 broke through the overcast the flight crew was surprised to see a completely snow-covered runway. That, combined with the short runway and Flushing Bay off the other end created a stressful situation resulting in the captain’s “application of excessive reverse thrust, which degraded the effectiveness of the rudder in controlling the airplane’s heading.”
At the center of our retina lies the fovea, which is responsible for our central vision, the portion of our retina that provides the highest visual acuity. Foveal vision accounts for only a small percentage of our total visual acuity. It is like a spotlight. You point it at something that you want to see clearly. The rest of our retina is low acuity peripheral vision, more like a flood light. If something captures your attention in your peripheral vision, you instinctively point your central vision, the spotlight, in that direction to see what’s there. Your attention or awareness of things around you is linked to your central vision. Unless you make a direct effort to do otherwise, one follows the other. You point the spotlight at what you are aware of and conversely, it is difficult to point the spotlight away from where your attention is. That’s something you learn when you ride a motorcycle. The bike goes where you look, and if you round a corner a see an oncoming car in your lane, the last thing you want to look at is the bumper of the car, which is screaming for your attention.
The pilot of Delta 1086 likely had his spotlight firmly affixed on Flushing Bay rushing toward him at 224 feet per second. For a moment, all he could see was the “bumper of the car” coming at him. Pilots are trained to handle situations such as this, but in the unexpected and highly stressful situation they were in, I can see how a disproportionate amount of his attention could have been pulled away from his training on proper procedures resulting in him doing the equivalent of slamming on the brakes at 153 mph on a snow-covered runway.
It took several hours before I was finally able to leave the airport, and thanks to the heavy snow, it took a couple more hours before I made it to the Tony Robbins event, which unfortunately still awaited me.
The atmosphere in the expo center when I walked in around 5:00 p.m. that night was somewhere between a rock concert and a revival. Six thousand people had been getting pumped up for the last five hours for the big event, the ceremonial barefoot walk across ten feet of red-hot burning coals.
We paired off with the person next to us who would be our accountability partner in the fire-walk. We were instructed to face each other and, as loud as we could, proclaim, “I am walking on fire tonight!” My partner was particularly enthusiastic, and seemed hurt when I yelled in response, “No way in hell am I walking on fire tonight.”
When the time came for the firewalk, the whole place was buzzing with excitement. As the crowd poured out of the conference center, I allowed myself to get pulled along like a lemming with the hope of finding a vantage point to watch the madness. As I stood there in one of several long twisting lines reminiscent of a Disneyland ride trying to find a place to get out, I began to look around at the thousands of people that surrounded me. Some hid it well, but for most, their fear was written all over their faces, and yet there they were, ready to risk a trip to the emergency room.
I would like to say it was a deep intellectual and emotional breakthrough that led me across the hot coals that night. It wasn’t. It was a simple thought, Am I incapable of doing something that 6,000 random people can do?
As it turned out it was far more intimidating than it was difficult or painful. The secret was not to pay attention to the coals beneath your bare feet which were screaming for your attention. Instead, keep your head up, eyes focused on the other side, and keep repeating “cool moss, cool moss, cool moss” as you carefully and deliberately walk from one end to the other. Said another way, don’t shine the spotlight on the hot embers below your feet, because that is all you will think about, and like the pilot of Delta 1086 you might find yourself in a far worse situation.
I dreaded attending that event, and in the end, I am really happy I wasn’t able to find a way out. All of my focus was on the things that would be hard or painful, and there were plenty of those. There frequently is when you do things that help you grow. I won’t go so far as to say it changed my life dramatically, but I was a little bit better person as a result of the experience and isn’t forward progress what living an examined life is all about?
In his book, The 12 Rules for Life, Dr. Jordan Petersan’s fourth rule is, “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today.” It’s the small, incremental changes we make each day that compound day after day, week after week, and year after year. It is only through the distance of time that we can look back and see just how much we have grown.
The visual spotlight I once had has been all but extinguished by retinal disease, but I can still choose where to point my attention, and that’s what matters. I can spend my days focused on what I don’t have as compared to others or I can focus on what I do, and that has little to do with my visual acuity. As my wife frequently quotes Tony Robbins, “Where attention goes, energy flows.”
And by the way, when I fly these days, it is never on Delta, and the first place my attention goes is to tighten that damn seatbelt.