Responding Greatly in the Hour of Need

“Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time.” – Sully

US Airways Flight 1549 being evacuated as it floats on the Hudson River.

On January 15, 2009 US Airways pilot Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 on New York’s Hudson River after hitting a flock of birds and losing both engines. Incredibly, all 155 passengers and crew survived, due to Captain Sullenberger’s response that combined technical savvy, emotional poise and well-honed human intuition.

Preparation Matters
Sully had been flying since he was a boy. He knew airplanes inside and out, including the big jet he was flying out of LaGuardia Airport on a crisp, cold day in New York City.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger visiting the Virtual Motion Simulator at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California

“I knew what the A320 could do,” he explained to the NTSB investigators—a fact proved by his almost immediate decision to turn off the autopilot and fly the plane himself.

His statement, “My aircraft” and the copilot’s answer, “Your aircraft” is one of the most powerful moments in the entire drama.

Nobody had ever trained for the scenario in which Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles found themselves—which could have meant panic in the cockpit. Instead, they pulled out a checklist for emergencies and began the systematic process of readying the plane for impact.

Through the years, Sully had encountered many dangerous situations—in both real and simulated scenarios. As an airline safety expert, he knew that he and his crew could rely on checklists and standard procedures to keep their naturally reactive survival responses under control.

But he did not rely on a checklist sequence to determine how to execute the actual water landing—and that is the reason all 155 passengers and crew survived.

Trusting Intuition
Played in the movie with pitch-perfect understatement by actor Tom Hanks, Sully’s character says matter-of-factly to the investigating panel, “I was sure I could do it.” And then he shocks them by admitting there was no time for complex analysis or trajectory computations. Once he decided to land in the Hudson, “I eye-balled it,” he says.

In other words, Sully ignored all distractions—and there were plenty, as the cockpit recording replay makes clear later in the movie. In that seminal moment, Sully became Luke Skywalker and let the Force guide his huge airliner into a perfect water landing on the Hudson River.

“Use the Force, Luke.” -Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

In an interview the real Sully summed up the event:

“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

The X-factor was Sully’s quietly confident ability to summon all of his faculties in combination with his intuitive Force that was able to compute the perfect coordinates for an unprecedented outcome.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend that you do. Here’s a 5-minute video to inspire you.

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Copyright © 2017 Cheryl Eckl and All rights reserved.

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