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“What is This?!”

What an emergency landing teaches us about creating a dental practice that gets attention.

I’ve been a part of two commercial airline emergency landings in my life. The first involved the plane catching fire over the Atlantic. That’s a whole other story. The second was this last winter.

It was a normal Southwest flight except for the fact that it was a new destination. My business partner, Joe, and I were headed to Salt Lake City to meet a client and begin work on a new project.

As we approached Salt Lake, the captain altered us to some storms in the area and said there would be some bumps on the decent. He wanted to secure the cabin a bit early and so the flight attendants could get safely seated.

As we began our descent the turbulance began. I don’t fly every week, but I fly enough every year to achieve A-List with Southwest. At the start it was normal, every-flight-kind-of bumps. A two or three on a scale of one to ten. By the time we were on our approach to the airport it was an eight or a nine. Not the worst of my life, but enough to make me put my book away, turn the music in my head phones way up and begin to count from one to one thousand (I know. It’s weird. It’s how I distract myself).

I was trying not to look out the window because I couldn’t rationalize how much the wings were flexing under the wind. At one point as we came through a break in the storm clouds I caught a glimpse of the runway — a few hundred feet directly below us. Joe saw the same thing.

“What are we doing?” he asked shocked.

“We’re not landing!” I almost shouted.

Right at that moment the pilot pulled up and hit the gas (or pushed a button or rev’ed the controls — whatever pilots do to make the plane go much faster). We weren’t landing on that pass.

“Six hundred forty eight. Six hundred forty nine. Six hundred …”

The next ten minutes as we ascended and tried to get above the storm were terrifying. On my previous scale of one to ten, this turbulence was a twelve. At one point, I had a death grip on the seat in front of me with my left hand and my right arm braced up against the window just trying to hold on to something. I thought about trying to reach for my cell phone. Maybe I could get a signal and text my wife to let her know I loved her, but I couldn’t let go of the seat.

“Eight hundred ninety two. Eight hundred ninety three. Eight hundred…”

Eventually, we got out of it and things settled down. You could hear a giant exhale from everyone in the cabin who had barely taken a breath for the last ten minutes. The pilot came on with another announcement:

“Well folks, the good news is we’re not going to have to make another landing attempt in that storm. The bad news is we’ve been redirected to land in Provo, Utah. We should be on the ground there in the next 20 minutes.”

None of us were real sure why we were landing at another airport and it’s important to note that the pilot never used the words “emergency landing.” We didn’t argue with the announcement. No one wanted to try to land in that storm again.

The landing in Provo was uneventful. It was a small runway full of hangers and small private aircraft. The plane came to a stop outside of the Utah Valley University Flight School (UVU) where we remained on the plane while emergency landing protocols were discussed. Eventually the pilot announced that the plane was not “suitable” for further flight and Southwest would be arranging bus transfers up to Salt Lake City.

We had assumed the detour to Provo was to get fuel and let the storm pass. Now we began to realize that there was more to the story.

We de-planed into the aviation school to wait for the buses. As we entered, it was amazing to watch the staff jump into action with their emergency training. Even though they’ve rehearsed for situations like this, the likelihood of using it was rare. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened there.

We all piled into various places through out the school: classrooms, staff lounges, the one boarding gate area. A few of the staff members raided the plane for the snacks and drinks and passed them around. The students were eager to ask us questions. “What was it like?” they asked. “I wish I was on that flight” another said.

We learned the details of the story from them. It turns out the plane was trying to land in 100+ mph wind sheer (Winds that change direction making landing incredibly difficult). The force of the winds on the way back up had caused the auto pilot to malfunction and forced the plane to make a landing as quick as possible. The students had received word that a Boeing 737 was making an emergency landing and they should be prepared to help in any way necessary. They were thrilled. We were glad to be safe.

At one point while we were standing near the entrance waiting on the buses and sipping on a can of orange juice the Assistant Director of the school walked through the front door into the crowd of passengers. He saw the 737 sitting directly outside of the building and exclaimed, “What is that?!”

We all let out a good laugh.

It was one of those stress relieving moments for sure, but if you think about the question, it’s not entirely intelligent or even accurate.

“What is that?” The answer is glaringly obvious. It’s an airplane.

We’ve all done it before. Something surprises us and we ask, “What is that?!” We know the answer, but it’s not really what we’re asking. We don’t want to know “what” as much as we do “why” or even “where.”

The question isn’t, “What is that?” as much as it is, “Why is that?” or “Where is that?”

“Why is a 737 sitting in front of our building?”

“Where did that airplane come from?”

It’s a question about story. It’s a question of context. An object out of place has a story that needs to be asked about.

A Boeing 737 sitting on a runway designed for small propellor planes outside of an aviation school full of students gets asked about.

An object out of place naturally gets attention.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if people responded to your practice the same way? If they were so surprised by the service and experience they left exclaiming, “What is this?!” They know the answer of course: It’s a dental practice. What they’re really asking, “Why is this practice like this?” Or “Where did this practice come from?”

It’s a question about story. It’s a question of context. An object out of place has a story that needs to be asked about.

What if you intentionally created a dental practice so different from the average experience that it left your patients surprised?

It would be an object that’s out of place. It would naturally get attention.

Would it be possible to leave patients asking, “What is this?!”


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