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.
I think there’s another lesson here, Nina. It’s doubtful that flight 1549 would have would up as the miracle it was without a career of preparation behind Captain Sullenberger. This is someone who has a lifetime of constantly adding to his store of knowledge and skill, all the while knowing that most professional pilots do no face a critical incident in their lifetime. He’s done accident investigation and human factors analysis. He was one of the developers of US Airways Cockpit Resource Management, the training concerned with how crews should work together in emergencies. I think that calm leadership comes, in large part, from a lifetime of preparation.
Right you are! Preparation and continuous learning are something that enabled Captain Sullenberger to pull off the seemingly unachievable. His poise was surely driven by his knowledge and confidence under such stressful conditions!
I took glider flying lessons sometime after I received my first pilots license and learned at the beginning of my first glider flight the completeness of my ignorance about flying. There is no doubt in my mind that requiring skill at glider flying would drastically increase the flight safety of general as well as commercial aviation. Capt. Sully is certainly the most recent example of the value of glider training. One should note that the greatest aviation disaster of all time was also performed by the chief safety officer of his airline. Capt. Sully is certainly the great hero of professional skill and leadership. He knows how to do the right thing at the right time.
I agree with you that Captain Sullenberger’s skill and training were critical to his successful ditching of the plane. Knowing how to fly an engine-less plane was not just fortunate, but necessary to accomplish what he did. It would indeed be beneficial to general and commercial aviation safety if more pilots had such training.
I too have been facinated by the leadership lessons on full display in the way “Sully” handled the landing of his plane in the Hudson. There is a lot to be said about the way he handled his “crisis” and what we can do when we face our own. The recently revealed cockpit recordings revealed even more about the importance of communication in times of crisis. I have written about this in my last couple of Leader Business blog postings and welcome your feedback. More importantly, I am thankful for “Sully” and his courage under fire. Hooah!
Communication is the crux of it all, and surely, Captain Sullenberger utilized it masterfully as demonstrated by the cockpit recordings. Like you, I’ve written about the critical importance of communication and offered some approaches or strategies to improving communication in both personal and professional settings. Thanks for the comments and I certainly suggest my readers go to your site at: http://www.leaderbusiness.blogspot.com/ to read your perspectives on this important topic.
Capt. Sullenberger demonstrated professionalism at its best. I also like to think that his vast experience enabled him to keep a cool head and years of flying perfected that landing in the Hudson. Hats off to you, “Sully”.
Surely, Captain Sullenberger’s experience enabled him to accomplish something never before done and thereby rescue 155 people from probably deadly consequences. We can never underestimate the ability of training, practice and experience to give us the skills needed at times we hope may never come.