Risk Management

Risk Management and the Spirit of St. Louis

He had one of the worst safety records in the history of aviation. He was underfunded. His competition had a huge head start. Charles Lindbergh was a long shot to be the first to fly from New York to Paris.

One reason he succeeded is risk tolerance. How much — and what kind — of risks are you willing to accept in order to achieve your objective? Risk tolerance can vary by category. In the case of financial risk, how much money are you willing to take a chance on losing? In the case of safety, how much risk are you willing to take that someone will be hurt or killed?

At the same time, taking certain risks is necessary for success. No one can tell you what level of risk is worth taking, but sometimes the only alternative is failure. By altering the amount and nature of the risk you are willing to accept, you can change the nature of your project constraints in drastic — and potentially empowering — ways.

And that was the secret to Lindbergh’s amazing victory.

When a newspaper called Lindbergh the “Flying Fool,” he replied, “I take no foolish risks and study out everything I do in the air. I don’t think I am a flying fool.” Were his risks foolish? His plane had only one engine; all the other competitors had two or three. All the other planes carried at least two people. Lindbergh flew solo. Total test flying time for the Spirit of St. Louis amounted to a paltry 5-1/2 hours! But Lindbergh knew he had the skills.

When Lindbergh reached New York with his new plane, two competitors were already there. The field was muddy — too muddy for a safe takeoff. His competitors decided to wait.

On the morning of May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh packed four sandwiches, two canteens of water, and 451 gallons of gasoline, and took off. The Spirit of St. Louis barely managed to clear the telephone wires at the end of the runway. Thirty-three and a half hours later, Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis landed safely at LeBourget Field, Paris.

Accepting an elevated level of risk doesn’t make you a “flying fool,” but if you know the stakes and know your goals, it may well be the smart thing to do.

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