How aircraft crash-landing simulation brings teams together

A Dubai-based organisation has created hyper-real scenarios of turbulence on an air plane to facilitate team-building exercises


Somya Mehta

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Published: Wed 15 Dec 2021, 8:30 PM

Last updated: Thu 7 Apr 2022, 4:11 PM

Picture this. Kicking back, you’re relaxing on a flight to a much-awaited destination. Savouring a hot meal while watching a movie you missed to catch in the cinema. Everything seems normal.

The usual, a kid crying in the far corner and a middle-aged dad-like-figure snoring away in the other. Until the seatbelt sign lights up. And the movie screen swaps for a passenger announcement. An emergency announcement. The flight dips. So does your heartbeat. Turbulence all around.

Chances are, if you’ve ever been on an airplane, it is the ‘T’ word you want to avoid at all costs. But it is also in times like these, times of turbulence — whether literally or figuratively — that you look to people around you, albeit strangers on an aircraft, in hopes of finding a glimpse of relief. And it is this very spirit that a Dubai-based company captures while creating their latest team-building exercise.

Flight cabin simulator
Flight cabin simulator

The Team Space recently partnered up with Dynamic Advanced Training group, an aircraft safety and training facility, to create a hyper-real simulation of turbulence on an airplane to facilitate team-building exercises. But how does a ‘doomsday’ scenario actually translate to teams coming together, working with each other and strengthening their ties as a cohort?

“You bring your team here and we can put you into all sorts of uncertain, unpredictable circumstances and situations where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Anything could go wrong, anything could go right. And there’s an opportunity for you to have an extremely realistic experience, using it as a vehicle for learning lessons about yourself and your team in real life,” says Andy Fieldhouse, founder and coach, The Team Space.

Andy Fieldhouse, founder, The Team Space
Andy Fieldhouse, founder, The Team Space

Quite literally tossing individuals around in a turbulent airplane, the team-building exercise requires participants to withstand challenging scenarios that mimic emergency situations, harsh weather conditions, heavy rains and rough terrains. “This is a way of coming together and getting it wrong in a safe place. If you make mistakes here, they’re learning opportunities,” adds Fieldhouse, who’s also the author of Getting Teamwork Right.

“When you come under pressure situations, you experience uncertainty. You need to build resilience and agility to deal with those situations. And we all know that Covid has led to similar experiences of uncertainty for every team in the world,” says the coach. “A lot of my work with the teams currently is around what to do next, how to stay together and communicate more effectively.”

In the half or full-day programme, teams can experience realistic scenarios in advanced cabin simulators, which create true-to-life flight incidents like rapid decompression, oxygen masks dropping down, sudden, unexpected turbulence and situations like smoke in the cabin.

Teams can be divided into groups of passengers and crew, where they have to manage the evacuation from the aircraft safely using emergency inflatable slides. “To begin with, it’s actually quite normal and amusing. Everyone’s on the airplane, getting used to the environment. But then suddenly something can go wrong,” says Fieldhouse.

Jungle room
Jungle room

The facility also has jungle and polar rooms simulating severe weather environments and landscapes and a 3.5-metre-deep wave pool, where participants have to get into life rafts in an ‘open sea’ simulation. “We can simulate normal, abnormal and emergency situations.

Smoke in the cabin
Smoke in the cabin

There might be severe, unexpected crash landing experiences and smoke in the cabin, with speakers playing screaming noises. The job of everyone on board is to get off the aircraft safely,” explains the coach.

The visceral experience ends with a debriefing session, where these experiences translate to meaningful team-level conversations. “The real power is in the debrief conversation that comes as part of the experience. It’s probably the most important thing. We do everything so we can have the conversation for you to really learn from the experience,” the coach adds.

Polar room
Polar room

According to Fieldhouse, these experiences test the team’s ability to collaborate, communicate effectively, delegate tasks and prioritise the use of available resources in high pressure situations. “Amongst the most common challenges that teams face worldwide are three key areas they usually need to focus on,” says Fieldhouse.

“First one is to avoid working in silos and collaborating with each other, second is dealing with poor leadership and third is handling change. We’re hardwired to fear the unknown as human beings. So these are the core areas the team-building exercise caters to,” adds the Team Space founder, who’s been coaching teams in the Middle East for over 13 years.

With over 25 years of experience overall, in training teams in the UK and the Middle East, the coach adds that it is imperative for organisations to empower their teams in as many ways possible.

“My advice to people is to take conscious control about the intention of your team. Especially in the pandemic, working remotely, people have not spent enough time consciously talking about what’s going on in their team. It’s important to have conversations that matter,” the coach mentioned. “How are people getting on? Is everyone able to speak up when they need help?”

In a place like the UAE, remote work has been a part of the corporate fabric to an extent, even before the pandemic, with the Middle East teams of multinational corporations working remotely with other continents. But the total and sudden change caused by the pandemic has led to “an adrenaline-fuelled firefighting response, activating all sorts of coping mechanisms for teams,” says the coach.

“It’s meant that we’ve missed the organic water-cooler moments, the nurturing of relationships and the connection between people in teams. You get on to Zoom to work. There’s not much of a chance to socialise there. We’re social animals, we don’t like to be alone,” says Fieldhouse, adding that team-building opportunities like these can afford teams the time to get to know themselves and each other better.

“There is no such thing as a perfect team. Every team can do with development of some sort. Unfortunately, there are many teams with lots of challenges, but even the best teams can still develop,” the coach mentions. “If you look at high performing sports teams, they’ve got coaches and trainers because they know the value of spending conscious effort and time on developing your team.”

In multicultural work environments like the UAE, team-building experiences become even more imperative as a growth factor for organisations, adds the coach. “When you have people from such different backgrounds, as well as the transient nature of the work population in the UAE, it’s really important to create greater understanding and tolerance around why people prefer to do things differently,” Fieldhouse signs off.

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