Like 10,000 Other Days Until It Wasn’t: A Case Study in Being Adaptable, Nimble, and Effective When Things Don’t Go According to Plan
“It was a day like literally 10,000 other days—until it wasn’t. I had been flying airplanes for 42 years, and in all that time I never knew when or even if I would be faced with some ultimate challenge.”
-Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger[i]
Nearly one month ago a movie opened in theaters that is quickly gaining acclaim. The movie would have naturally gained attention given the Hollywood icons who are part of this project – Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart as the stars, and Clint Eastwood as the director. But the film’s early notoriety did not simply come from the Hollywood elite involved in the film, but rather from the story the film portrays – that of Captain Chesley “Sulley” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffery Skiles successfully landing a plane in the Hudson River.
On January 15, 2009, 155 people boarded US Airways Flight 1549 from La Guardia Airport heading to Charlotte, North Carolina.[ii] As the flight climbed into the sky, a flock of birds flew into the engines of the plane, what is known as a “double bird strike.” At about 3,200 feet of altitude, both engines failed.[iii]
Captain Sullenberger had almost no time to make a decision about what to do. He could attempt to fly back towards La Guardia and make an emergency landing on that runway. But if he missed, the plane would crash in a heavily occupied metropolitan area of New York. He could instead attempt to land at a small private airstrip in New Jersey called Teterboro, but again risk landing in a heavily occupied area. Or he could attempt to land somewhere with little to no risk of injuring civilians on the ground, but in a place that could only too easily destroy the plane and everyone on board – the Hudson River. There were no good options, and so Captain Sullenberger picked the least bad option: to ditch the plane in the Hudson River.
And he did it. 208 seconds after the engines failed, Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River.[iv] And all 155 people disembarked the plane in the river with only some minor injuries. Then-Governor David Paterson said at the time, “We have had a miracle on 34th Street, I believe we now have a miracle on the Hudson.”[v]
For Captain Sullenberger, it was like 10,000 other days until it wasn’t. Whether it was a miracle or not, Captain Sullenberger epitomized being adaptable, nimble, and effective when things went wrong.
Pilots train for all number of worst case scenarios. They are trained to remain calm and make fast decisions. Captain Sullenberger remained calm and acted quickly when things went wrong.
Watch this simulation of the flight with the audio recording from the flight.
First Officer Skiles had piloted the flight take off.[vi] As the engines failed, Captain Sullenberger took over the aircraft. “My aircraft,” Sullenberger said. “Your aircraft,” Skiles replied.[vii] He was calm and wasted no time getting to work.
Captain Sullenberger immediately alerted air traffic control at La Guardia about the engine failure, while First Officer Skiles reviewed the engine restart checklist. In the recording, we hear how Captain Sullenberger originally planned to return to La Guardia to land. The air traffic controller struggles to share the information clearly, even getting the flight’s call sign mixed up. As the air traffic controller tried to clear a runway at La Guardia, Captain Sullenberger assessed the situation and realized he would not be able to get back to La Guardia. According to the FAA transcript, the conversation went like this[viii]:
Air traffic controller: Cactus 15-29, if we can get it to you, do you want to try to land runway 1-3?
Sullenberger: We’re unable, we may end up in the Hudson.
[Several seconds later] Air traffic controller: Alright Cactus 15-49, it’s going to be left traffic to runway 3 – 1.
Air traffic controller: Okay, what do you need to land?
Air traffic controller: Cactus 15-49, runway four is available if you want to make left traffic to runway four.
Sullnberger: I am not sure if we can make any runway. Oh, what’s over to our right? Anything in New Jersey? Maybe Teterboro?
Air Traffic controller: Do you want to try and go to Teterboro?
[After confirming runway in Teterboro] Air traffic controller: Cactus 15-29, turn right 2-8-0. You can land runway one at Teterboro.
Sullenberger: We can’t do it.
Air traffic controller: Okay, which runway would you like at Teterboro?
Sullenberger: We’re gonna be in the Hudson.
Air traffic controller: I’m sorry, say again Cactus.
The air traffic controller continued to direct Flight 1549 to runways even after the plane had already landed in the river. While the air traffic control struggled to communicate clearly, Captain Sullenberger was calm, clear and wasted no time. “After discussing the runway possibilities with the air traffic controller about returning to La Guardia [Airport], or trying Teterboro in New Jersey, I kept realizing they were too far,” Captain Sullenberger explained later. “So I finally said, ‘No, we’re gonna be in the river.’ And then I had the discipline to stick with it, without wavering, and without second-guessing myself.”[ix]
He used no more words than were necessary, and made quick decisions to avoid injury. Even with the passengers he was charged with, he appeared calm and in control. He waited until right before he knew they would go down to announce, “This is the captain. Brace for impact.”[x] And upon landing, as people disembarked onto the wings of the plane, he made sure to walk back and forth through the cabin twice to ensure everyone was safely off.[xi]
No pilot wants to make an emergency water landing because water landings are particularly difficult. If they land in the water too fast or at the wrong angle, the plane will crash hard and sustain potentially devastating damage. And while pilots are trained to make emergency water landings, the training is more theoretical than anything else. The training is done through a simulator. As one pilot told reporters, “You’re landing on a big blue screen.”[xii]
But of all the pilots to operate Flight 1549, Captain Sullenberger was perhaps one of the best equipped to take on such a landing. Captain Sullenberger served in the US Air Force for seven years before joining what was then called USAir. As a pilot, he also served as an accident inspector for the Air Line Pilots Association, therefore he had in-depth knowledge on crash landings and how to avoid catastrophic damage. And Captain Sullenberger was a certified glider pilot, which meant he had hundreds of hours of experience guiding an aircraft without engines.[xiii]
With his range of experience, and his ability to adapt to changing circumstances and make decisions quickly and effectively, he was able to pull off a miracle on the Hudson.
In the lead up to the release of the movie Sully, Captain Sullenberger appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Here is a clip from that interview:
Colbert asked Captain Sullenberger about how he was able to make the decision to land on the Hudson. Captain Sullenberger responded: “The only training we had ever gotten [for a water landing] was a theoretical classroom discussion… So we had to dig deep, take we did know, adapt it and apply it to a new problem we had never seen before.” He continued, “Part of our job is to be able to handle whatever happens – no matter how unexpected or unanticipated it is.”[xiv]
We never know when that day will come that starts like 10,000 other days and then suddenly isn’t. We never know what day we as individuals or organizations will face some ultimate test – one that could decide our fate. One of the disciples of leadership is the ability to adapt quickly and effectively when things go wrong. But so often that does not happen – too often leaders and organizations do not respond to changing circumstances in timely and effective ways, and it causes significant harm to the organization and its leader. To maintain the trust and confidence of those who matter most, leaders need to overcome the fear and inertia that stalls decision-making when things go wrong. Leaders need to take what they know, adapt to the current circumstances, and quickly and effectively make a decision as to what to do next.
Captain Sullenberger is trained to handle whatever happens – no matter how unexpected or unanticipated. His job that day in January 2009 was to be nimble, adaptable, and effective when things went wrong. He had the discipline to carry out this principle, and as a result everyone on board that flight disembarked the plane and went on to fly again.
The burden for leaders is develop this discipline so that should that day come that is like 10,000 other days until isn’t, they will be able to respond in a nimble, adaptable, and effective way.
This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.
[i] Newsweek Special Edition. “‘Sully’ Sullenberger Remembers the Miracle on the Hudson.” Newsweek. Newsweek, LLC, 11 July 2015. Web. <www.newsweek.com/miracle-hudson-343489>.
[ii] Brooks, Mike, Mike Ahlers, and Jeanne Meserve. “Airplane Crash-lands into Hudson River; All aboard Are Reported Safe.” CNN. Cable News Network, 15 Jan. 2009. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/01/15/new.york.plane.crash/>.[ii] Newsweek Special Edition.
[iii] Wald, Matthew L. “Plane Crew Is Credited for Nimble Reaction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Jan. 2009. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/16/nyregion/16pilot.html?_r=0>.
[iv] Newsweek Special Edition.
[v] Brooks, Ahlers, and Meserve.
[vi] Newsweek Special Edition.
[vii] “US Airways 1549 CVR Transcript.” US Airways 1549 CVR Transcript. Cockpit Voice Recorder Database, n.d. Web. <http://www.tailstrike.com/150109.htm>.
[ix] Newsweek Special Edition.
[x] Newsweek Special Edition.
[xi] Brooks, Ahlers, and Meserve.
[xiv] Hoskinson, Jim, dir. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert 9/7/16.” The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. CBS. New York, New York, 7 Sept. 2016. CBS. Web. <http://www.cbs.com/shows/the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/video/7uZarYH2NFC95De08VneYldyKdMGifFt/the-late-show-9-7-2016-whoopi-goldberg-regina-hall-captain-sully-sullenberger-/>.