The Miracle on the Hudson

On 15 January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 (‘CACTUS 1549’), an Airbus A320, was scheduled to fly from New York’s LaGuardia to Charlotte Douglas.

The Captain was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who had been an airline pilot since leaving the United States Air Force in 1980. On this day, he had 19,663 total flight hours logged, including 4,765 in the A320. He is also a glider pilot and expert on aviation safety. First officer Jeffrey Skiles, 49, had 15,643 flight hours on this day, but CACTUS 1549 was his first A320 assignment since qualifying to fly it. There were 150 passengers and three flight attendants aboard.

The flight was cleared for take-off from LaGuardia at 3:24 pm. With Skiles flying, Sully remarked: “What a view of the Hudson today.” At 3:27 the plane struck a flock of Canada geese. The pilots’ view was filled with the large birds. Passengers and crew heard very loud bangs and saw flames from the engines, followed by silence and the smell of fuel. Sully takes control. Skiles works the engine restart checklist. After continuing to climb briefly, the aircraft begins a glide descent,.

Sully radios a mayday call to New York Terminal Radar Approach Control: “… hit birds. We’ve lost thrust on both engines. We’re turning back.” Air traffic control direct Sully back to Runway 13. Sully responds: “Unable.” About 90 seconds later, at 3:31pm, the plane makes an unpowered ditching into the middle of the Hudson tidal estuary. Sully opens the cockpit door and orders the evacuation. Everyone gets off. Sully is last.

Described by friends as shy and reticent, Sully was lauded for his calmness and poise during the crisis. He said that the moments before he ditched were “the worst sickening, put-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feelings” that he had ever experienced He also said:

“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.”

We Live Through Moments

What made the difference? So many other flights in similar circumstances have been lost with all passengers and crew. What was different with CACTUS 1549?

Moments. We live through moments.

The pilots between them had over 35,000 hours of logged flight time. That’s over 2.1 million moments. Sully had over 4,700 hours logged on type. 282,000 moments. He was calm. Skiles was calm. The crew was calm. Professionalism personified. They were moments out. Weather was good, if cold. There were boats within striking distance. Everything aligned. After they landed, everyone did their job and Sully, the skipper, stayed calm and saw everyone off.

When we pull together explanations out of process metaphysics and psychology, we find a deeper explanation that runs through distinct phases. But the key is Sully’s own “small regular deposits in … experience, education and training.”

On CACTUS 1549, innate trained instincts and intuition ingrained through 2.1 million moments of experience, education and training, were triggered. Sully started to think fast, working on gut instinct and intuition, subconsciously applying the heuristic rules of thumb developed across his life’s experiences.

It’s Like How Time ‘Slows Down’ in Sport

Most of us have watched elite sportsmen and sportswomen hit their ‘groove.’ When they do, it’s almost as if time slows down for them.

In many of his rugby union international appearances, Daniel Carter, the supremely talented All Black first five-eights (responsible for steering his team around the field) always looked as though he had far more time and more options than anyone else playing in his position. Some of it was to do with the dominance of his forward pack, as well as the speed and skill sets of his back division. Much more of it was to do with the hours and hours of practice and training that he undertook in playing club rugby in rural Canterbury, then for Christchurch Boys High School (a remarkable rugby nursery), the Crusaders in Super Rugby and finally the All Blacks. His appetite for training is well known. His coaches were influential too, setting up an environment and culture built around expectations and accountability.

Time never slows down for Carter. It can’t. However, his heuristic mastery, built on millions of moments of practice enabled him to leverage time. He rapidly processed huge amounts of sensory inputs (international rugby is a swirling, visceral mix of light, sound, environment and physical force), moving through the stages of prehension, finally blending gut instinct with intellectual judgment. Talent? Yes. Environment? Yes. Culture? Yes, but … Practice. Practice. Practice. Moments, Moments. Moments.

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