FEATURE — At a recent convention our company set up a booth and in it, we displayed an FAA-certified flight simulator. We invited visitors to take a turn flying a mock landing, challenging them with the question, “Can you fly the plane?” 

Our booth attracted a lot of attention as many people tried, though relatively few succeeded, at safely landing the aircraft. Amidst the fun and excitement came the common question, “What does flying an airplane have to do with investing?” 

Early on in my flight training, my instructor emphasized this basic principle: “When things go wrong, keep flying the plane.” It seemed like an odd bit of advice, so I largely put it in the back of my memory.

If you’ve ever taken flying lessons, you will know that instructors like to surprise their students from time to time to see how they will react. On one particular day, we were out practicing dead reckoning. This is when you navigate by looking at the ground below. While I was busy looking for a landmark my instructor quietly turned off a breaker switch causing an alarm to go off in the plane. I was startled and looked to see what was going on and noticed a red light flashing down near the floor.

While I searched for the problem my instructor tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out the front window. The little Cessna I was supposed to be flying was in a 45-degree bank and headed rapidly toward the ground. I had gotten so caught up in trying to figure out what the alarm was all about, that I had completely forgotten everything else. He then said to me quite forcefully, “Fly the plane!” I never forgot that lesson again.

Clouds overhand an airplane at St. George Regional Airport, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

It may surprise non-pilots to know that “emergencies” of various kinds happen in airplanes all the time. The technology, especially in modern aircraft, regularly flashes yellow or red lights, sounds buzzers or even gives verbal warnings of a potential problem. The vast majority of these are just situations that need to be addressed. Maybe a pilot forgot to switch the fuel tanks, or is drifting off course, or perhaps some equipment is acting up.

Whatever the issue, the first thing that should come to a pilot’s mind is to keep flying the airplane. In other words, don’t let what is likely a minor distraction keep you from doing what is most important. Many pilots have died because, in a time of distraction, they forgot to keep flying the airplane.

Investors have constant access to world news wherein alarms are sounding every day. The temptation is strong for investors to allow these constant warnings to distract them from their investing goals. They will often react with impulsive investing actions, forgetting that a portfolio of investments is like an airplane. Its purpose is to get you to your destination.

If you have set it up well, the distractions along the way will usually be minor issues.  When the news is blaring its daily warnings, remember to stay focused, trust your plan, deal with the distractions as needed, but mostly keep flying the plane.

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