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Inspiration from Disaster — Flight 255 and Its Lasting Impact

August 16, 2017 marks the 30th Anniversary of the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight #255, an event that forever changed my life and that still emboldens me to this day.

This week Omni Talk gets a little more personal. You see this week is the anniversary of a defining moment in my life. 30 years ago this week, on August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines Flight #255 crashed on takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

My father was on that flight.

I was 10 years old.

I have never really opened up publicly to share how this event shaped me into the person I have become.  Today I am going to try.

30 years is a long-time. So long in fact that I have now outlived my father (he was only 38 when he died). Today I write this post in honor of him, of my family, and of you, the reader, so you can see what lies at the heart of my motivations.

Sometime between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM, on August 16, 1987, in Phoenix, AZ a newsflash interrupted the NBC Movie of the Week, Combat High.  Funny too, as fate would have it, and if you are a frequent reader of my posts, Combat High starred a one Keith Gordon and a one George Clooney, playing a pre-fame and pre-ER, Major Biff Woods.

Honestly though, I don’t remember a single thing about the movie.  I only remember the newsflash and nothing else. Until at some indeterminate amount of time later, I remember my mother coming into the living room to tell me, in the dark of the night, that my father, Charles Francis Walton, was indeed a passenger on Flight #255.

I was inconsolable.

My mother, god bless her, did all she could to comfort me, ultimately reading me to sleep that night to the children’s book of ET — the Extraterrestrial.

I share this experience with you because if you already know me, or should you meet me, or even should we never meet and you instead just read me now or in the future, this event shaped my view of the world.  Seemingly out of nowhere, random chance had struck and changed my life forever.

This random chance is why, one, I rarely get too amped up about anything, and, two, why I am never settled, always thinking about and wondering if and how things could change, and then never surprised or down too much when things do change.  Maybe that’s the gift of the “bounce.”  The “bounce” part comes easy on the backside, but no doubt it has probably caused struggle and consternation for me and, more likely, for my loved ones on the front side.

But more importantly, the stink of it all and what still haunts me is — the accident could have been avoided.

If you are interested, you can read the details of the crash here on Wikipedia, but the long and the short of it is that the pilots forgot to review their preflight checklist and the warning system also was not functioning correctly, meaning the plane’s flaps never were extended for takeoff, and 149 passengers and 6 crew members perished, while only one passenger, 4-year-old, Cecilia Cichan, survived.

Said another way, it was all due to pilot error.

It was a simple human mistake.  The same human mistake about which Krakauer writes in Into Thin Air.  Soul searchingly, it is likely why Into Thin Air is my favorite book. Through the allegory of Everest, Into Thin Air touches on my own personal experience and my strong belief that disastrous situations really can be avoided.

It is why, now that I think of it, I have always been impassioned to find better ways to do things, to innovate, to improve, and not to settle for things that “just work.”

It was only a checklist.

It is why, I decided at 40-years-old to start a new career, to venture into the unknown, desirous to be a leader in the disruption that is happening around us, to do what I can to make sure the checklist is surveyed.

There are paths out of the peril that currently stare our industry in the face. The answers may even be right in front of our very eyes too, and I will continue to write about them and to champion them until we make progress.

Too many lives, families, and communities need us to keep fighting for what we hold dear.  We can’t give it all over to Amazon and to the Valley.

No.

Instead, we have to dive head first into the “crack up,” as Rhett Butler would say, and enjoy the present.  We must rush into the unknown and not fear the unknown.  We must enjoy the knowlege that none of us know where the future of retail will lead or even the path our own lives will take.  We have to embrace the present with the vigor and the gusto of a child.

Which is why, in closing, the below is my favorite photograph I have ever taken.

It is a picture, of my son, standing and staring down the lane of a bowling alley for the first time. Young, like I was, when my father used to do the same with me, curious to examine and understand something he has never seen before.

The bumpers are on the lanes. He has thrown the ball with all of his 4-year-old might. The ball bounces from one gutter to the next.

For a second, it looks like all hope is lost, but then the ball curves and hits a bumper again, only to be redirected straight for the pins. He takes it all in.

Just like life, the journey of the bowling ball is a journey none of us can predict. But it is the 4-year-old experience of watching the spin and watching the direction that the ball takes that this whole life thing is all about.

Sure there’s sadness as you hit the gutters, and excitement as you hit the pins. But it isn’t the hitting of the pins that matters, it is the joy of the journey that does.

So now, as I age, I try to see the world through my son’s eyes, like how I like to think my father saw things through mine, eagerly watching as the ball moves down the oil-rubbed lanes, for however long my son and I may have together.

At least until he is a teenager. Then I likely will just want to lock him in his room.

Be careful out there,

Chris

Chris Walton View All

Chris Walton is an accomplished Senior Executive with nearly 20 years of success within the retail and retail technology industries. He is well-versed in merchandising, store operations, inventory management, product design, forecasting, e-commerce, pricing and promotions, and tech product development.

Chris was most recently a Vice President with Target, where he led the retailer’s Store of the Future project and also ran the Target’s home furnishing division for e-commerce. He previously worked for GAP, Inc., as a Distribution Analyst and Manager.

Chris holds a BA in Economics and History from Stanford University, and a MBA from Harvard Business School.

He likes to dress as Darth Vader for Halloween, and his wife also frequently asks him to ask Alexa, "to turn off the music."

6 thoughts on “Inspiration from Disaster — Flight 255 and Its Lasting Impact Leave a comment

  1. This was powerful, Chris. I especially loved, “Just like life, the journey of the bowling ball is a journey none of us can predict. But it is the 4-year-old experience of watching the spin and watching the direction that the ball takes that this whole life thing is all about.” May your ball continue to hit all the pins you aim for!

  2. Chris, what a cool reminder about how precious life is and our responsibility to protect it. Everything from the most tragic ( like you shared) to more simple daily acts are not accidental and we have the power to impact more that we think we do. I appreciate the personal sharing! Miss you man

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