Well if we’ve ever needed an example of what it really is to lead during a crisis, this past week’s U.S. Airways flight 1549 water landing shows us loud and clear. Just moments after takeoff, the 29-year U.S. Airways veteran captain of the plane and a pilot for 40 years, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, knew his plane was in serious trouble. Barely off the ground, the plane flew right through a flock of geese causing some birds to be drawn into each of the plane’s engines knocking them both out. Passenger and crew accounts indicate the “deadly silence” that followed the loud bang indicating the loss of the engines. The silence was broken by a calm, authoritative voice stating, “This is the captain speaking. Brace for impact.”
From that very moment, passengers and crew knew they were in for the ride of a lifetime, if not the end of one. Even those that might not normally be prone to do so, began praying. And in answer to those prayers and to their collective good fortune, this particular captain was not only very experienced pilot in the Airbus he was flying, but also quite experienced in flying glider planes. And, of course, one interesting thing to note about glider planes is that every landing is an engine-out landing! So here they were, 155 people on board an engine-less plane, with a pilot well-versed in landing glider planes. After alerting the passengers and crew, Sullenberger went to work determining his best course of action. Try to return to La Guardia Airport, attempt to reach Newark Airport across the river, maybe head toward Teterboro Airport or attempt what had never been successfully accomplished – “ditch” the plane in the Hudson River. Making instantaneous calculations, he determined that the worst of the options was his only choice.
With a steady hand, Sullenberger guided the powerless plane over the Hudson slowing it down as necessary, descending toward the icy waters, lifted the nose just before dropping the tail into the water in a spectacular splash landing. People onboard likened the landing to a hard landing on a runway with only one impact and gradual deceleration. When the plane came to a stop in the water, the composed voice of Sullenberger came across the speakers with just one word – “Evacuate”. But, as they say, the captain goes down with his ship. Sullenberger’s work was only just beginning. With a sense of tremendous composure, Sullenberger exited the cockpit and assisted the crew with evacuation procedures ensuring that all passengers made it out of the interior cabin and onto the wings of the plane. He walked the aisle twice looking for and assisting passengers in reaching a safer place before exiting the plane himself – the last person to leave the plane.
Within just three minutes, rescue teams from ferries, other nearby boats, and Coast Guard reached the plane and began taking passengers onto their boats and to safety either on the New York side of the river or the New Jersey side. In what seemed like a scene from a Hollywood movie, all 155 passengers and crew made it to safety with nearly no injuries. Remarkable doesn’t even come close to describing this situation or Sullenberger’s poise under such difficult and perilous circumstances. He truly is a leader whose lead all leaders should follow.
Nina Nets It Out: Captain Sullenberger demonstrated astounding leadership qualities during this mid-air crisis. He showed how a leader can keep an otherwise turbulent [no pun intended] situation where chaos might be expected, calm and orderly. His calm, authoritative poise under intense stress with 155 people’s lives in his hands, created an atmosphere in which he was able to accomplish something never done before. We should all emulate his behavior to lead with steadiness and ensure the well-being of those we are responsible for.