Command Performance (Revisited): Sully!

We all know the “Miracle on the Hudson” story. I think pilots especially have watched those videos many times and perhaps even viewed the personal interviews or read Sully’s book. There is a wealth of data here, but also important lessons to be learned that can be applied to our everyday flying. This story will be revisited on the big screen soon with Tom Hanks playing the starring role (releasing on September 9th so prepare for more questions from your friends and relatives). I was personally perplexed at how they would expand 208 seconds of action into a full two-hour movie. The focus (I was delighted to learn) seems to be on the pilot decision-making process. This area is especially valuable for pilots because we can extrapolate directly from Sully’s actions into our everyday flying experience. (This subject has fascinated me for years and my recent Masters Thesis in Psychology at Penn was on decision-making) So let’s explore how every pilot can better execute decisions in emergency situations and be “more like Sully.”

First, in my opinion, “The Miracle on the Hudson” had no divine intervention at all but instead revealed Olympic Gold Medal quality piloting and decision-making skills. And though this whole event only took only 208 seconds, Sully’s performance required years of preparation and training. Unlike an Olympic performance, the time and place of this contest was never revealed before the required test! And that is the critical mandate for pilots; to maintain sharp flying skills, be constantly mentally prepared, and stay endlessly vigilant since we never know when we will be called upon to perform beyond the “normal” level.

birdstrike_exosphere

Probably the best method of untangling the Sully emergency decision process is to imagine other possible outcomes. What if Sullengerger had executed his first impulse and attempted a return to LGA? I think with the necessarily higher speed and uncertain accuracy, pointing a fuel-laden airliner at a relatively small urban airport would have resulted in a 9/11 kind of inferno and many innocent lives lost. From the movie trailer I have seen this was a point of controversy and discussed endlessly in the media. The official report from the NTSB reveals prepared pilots in simulators did achieve an acceptable result. Perhaps as Sully came through that left turn he discerned the implausibility of a successful outcome from this course of action. This option was surely the “text book solution” and suggested by ATC as reasonable and expected. The key skill Sully executed here was pilot in command authority. If there are two parts on rewind that give me absolute chills in those videos it’s the phrase “unable” on the return to KLGA and also when rejecting KTEB “we can’t do that.” The courage and creativity to select the largest flat surface in view, the Hudson River, made this whole scenario turn out successful (along with the piloting skill and discipline to make this work). As pilots, we can easily be led into trouble if we let someone else make decisions for us and “remotely fly” our aircraft. PIC authority and the requisite skill to “cash those checks” is what make emergencies resolve in the best possible manner.

The literature on emergency decision-making points out other common, but unsuccessful reactions and strategies seen in the thousands of accidents investigated. “Failure to accept the emergency” is a common occurrence when the fertilizer hits the fan. Pilots, initially startled and confused, fail to respond at all. They are psychologically unprepared for any emergency and as a result get lost in panic. This response results from the “fat, dumb and happy” approach to piloting rather than the “ready for action” approach. If we wish to be safe pilots, we have a mandate to always be mentally alert and neurologically “code yellow” during critical phases of flight. This predisposition will usually assure a more correct emergency response. If we are not vigilant, we are incorporating “hope” and “luck” as part of our planning process (search for those products in your Sporty’s Catalog).

3p-modelAnother common pathway to failure in emergencies is seeking only a “perfect outcome” when searching for a solution. Aeronautical Decision Making is necessarily what the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon called “satisficing.” Given limited time, resources and computational power, we can only achieve “the best among our limited options”. I am sure Sully would have preferred 13R at Kennedy; 200 feet wide and 14,511 feet long, but that option was not on the table. As a group, pilots necessarily strive for perfection daily but also unfortunately as a group, also tend toward the flaw of “perfectionism” in it’s fully realized form. This can be especially disabling in emergency situations, leading to inaction through endless search (wasting time) and multiple solutions (failure to commit and conquer). In emergencies we must accept the “best available” and strive aggressively to make our chosen plan successful. George Patton’s famous quote in this regard was “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Timeliness is critical.

And though checklists are a wonderful, important resource in everyday flying (and in emergencies that allow time), there are times where “immediate action items”, memorized and rehearsed are the essential pilot tools and long lists distract from “flying the plane”. In most checklists these are the bold face items that must be available for immediate recall and action without consulting a list. One NTSB take-away was the necessity for flight departments to create short, immediate action references available to pilots and not exhaustive multi-page CYA documents written by the company legal department.

One last suggestion for emergencies is to keep your pilot toolkit sharp and ready for action. Though Sully was continuously flying a largely automatic airplane in a fairly predictable environment, he had the piloting skills to take over manually and without his familiar electronic guidance, achieve an almost impossibly perfect glide into the Hudson. A carefully honed set of skills, ready for execution, is a huge advantage when the “same old day” turns into a “surprising situation” (a pretty good definition of an emergency). Automation dependency is an increasing problem as we fly modern automatic airplanes. Professional pilots are required to “tune-up” every 6 months in a simulator…and we should too. Fly safely, stay sharp and let’s hope none of us have to generate miracles to survive…but we should be ready!

Your comments are welcome; Pilot take-aways from this “Miracle”?

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Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

3 thoughts on “Command Performance (Revisited): Sully!”

  1. Nicely Done David!
    Experiential Reference and simulated exercise hone a pilot’s skill…in what he can do and what the aircraft is capable of. Learn to know the difference. Experience simulated emergencies, fly with an instructor. Comfort & clarity of thought will replace fear and indecision.

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  2. I have a cousin-in-law who jokingly refers to himself as “Sully’s hero”… He was at the time a NY waters ferry boat captian, and thee boat captain whom got to pluck the flight crew out of the river. It was something that they (the ferry boats) practiced for… The eventual event that an airline would ditch in the Hudson. THAT DAY indeed was a miracle, EVERYTHING came to gather perfect. From the actions of the flight crew to the training of the ferry boat captains to even the placement of the hudson river. So rarely does EVERYTHING go right, in such an emergency! It was a booster shot in the arm to the American people’s emotional state, right when they needed a hero.

    No doubt the nature and caliber of the people involved in the event made it happen. But Scully had little other choice, as have had the other pilots that have found themselves having been left with that one and only option of the Hudson.

    If we keep sharp our skills sharp & we are ready; I honestly think each and every pilot given the same set of circumstances (from brand new to ATP) would do the same as Scully. He’s highly regarded because he did the thing we should ALL be able to do. And, the system (of ferry boats) stepped in a took care of second half. It all worked, prefectly!

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