An Incredible Lesson in Crisis Management


(E) Nearly after a month that Captain Sully Sullenberger and his crew from US Airways Flight 1549, against all odds, successfully landed a plane in the Hudson river offshore of Manhattan, saving 155 lives, Continental Airlines Flight 3407 crashed into a house near Buffalo, NY killing 50 lives. Sometimes, the news seems to be inspired from a Kafka novel and to follow an absurd logic from Camus. In order to avoid future failures similar to Continental Airlines Flight 3407, we must learn from the success of US Airways Flight 1549. Captain Sully Sullenberger has given us an incredible lesson in crisis management that can be applied to a crisis in our personal or family lives, a crisis in dramatic business situations, a crisis in a terrorist attack such as 9/11, and a crisis in a natural disaster such as the 2004 Tsunami or Katerina in 2005. Most of the major crisis that mankind will face in the soon future will be natural disasters due to global warming.

Success in crisis management is all about quickly detecting the crisis, evaluating the options available, deciding on the best plan, executing flawlessly the plan, controlling the risks and last but not least having luck.

Shortly after US Airways Flight 1549 flight was leaving La Guardia for Charlotte, NC, its two engines were damaged by a bird strike. Just before landing in Buffalo, NY and coming from Newark, Continental Airlines Flight 3407, under significant ice buildup on its wings, crashed in a house. In flight 1549, a passenger lost his brother in 9/11. In fight 3407, a passenger lost her husband in 9/11. Both Flight 1549 and Flight 3407 are Gray Swans, or unpredictable rare events with large consequences but while US Airways Flight 1549 is a Positive Gray Swan with a wonderful outcome, Continental Airlines Flight 3407 is a Negative one with a dramatic ending. As Kafka wrote “everything is condensed into a single moment, it decides our life” but as Camus wrote, “in the end, one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.”

From the interviews that he gave on 60 Minutes on February 8th to Katie Couric on CBS and on Tuesday and Wednesday, February 10th and 11th on Larry King Live on CNN, following is how did Captain Sully Sullenberger manage the crisis of his life and saved 155 lives!

Recognizing the Uniqueness of the Crisis
“About 90 seconds after takeoff, I notice there were birds, filling the entire windscreen, from top to bottom, left to right, large birds, close, too close to avoid. I felt, heard and smelled the evidence of them going into the engines. I heard the noises. I felt the engine vibrations of the damage being done to the engines. And, I smelled what I described at the time, and I still would, as a burned bird smell being brought from the engine area into the conditioning system of the airplane…It was obvious to me from the very moment that we lost the thrust that this was a critical situation. Losing thrust on both engines, at a low speed, at a low altitude, over one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Yes, I knew it was a very challenging situation.

The airplane stopped climbing and going forward, and began to rapidly slow down. That’s when I knew I had to take control of the airplane. I put my hand on the side stick and I said, the protocol for the transfer of control, “My aircraft”, and the first officer Jeff (Skiles) immediately answered, “Your aircraft”. (With no engine power) you use the forward momentum to provide the airflow over the wings to provide the sufficient lift…I knew immediately that this, unlike every other flight I’d had for 42 years, was probably not going to end with the airplane undamaged on the runway.”

Denial is the First Reaction to a Crisis
“My initial reaction was one of disbelief. I can’t believe this is happening. This doesn’t happen to me. I meant that I had this expectation that my career would be one in which I didn’t crash an airplane.”

Evaluating the Options and Deciding on a Plan
“I quickly determined that due to our distance from La Guardia and the distance and altitude required to make the turn back to La Guardia, it would be problematic reaching the runway. And trying to make a runway, I couldn’t quite make could well be catastrophic to everyone on board, and persons on the ground. And my next thought was to consider Teterboro. (But, it soon became clear, I couldn’t make it to Teterboro either). The only viable alternative, the only level smooth place sufficiently large to land an airliner was the (Hudson) river. The river was right to my left, and I contacted air traffic control (again) and I said “We’re going in the Hudson”.”

Extreme Determination to Succeed
“I knew, I had to solve that problem. I knew I had to find a way out of this box I got myself in.”

Deep Focus on the Execution
“The physiological reaction I had to this was strong, and I had to force myself to use my training and force calm on the situation…My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing. I could not think of anything else. ”

Flawless Execution of the Solution, One Step at a Time
“As soon as I assumed control of the aircraft, I turned the engine ignition on. So if there was any chance of a relight, we would have gotten it automatically. The next thing I did was I started the auxiliary power unit, another small jet engine that we used to provide electrical power for the airplane. But the engines didn’t start. No luck. I mean, I got the AP running, I turned the ignition on, but still, no usable thrust. We were descending rapidly toward the water. The water was coming up at us fast.
(To make this landing successful), I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level. I needed to touch down with the nose slightly up. I needed to touch down at a descent rate that was survivable. And I needed to touch down just above our minimum flying speed but not below it. And, I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously.”

Fully Confident in his Ability
“I was sure, I could do it.”

Training and Experience (of course!) are Key to Succeed but Talent is, in the End, what Makes a Difference
“I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.”

Captain Sully Sullenberger was the right pilot for the right flight: a former Air Force fighter pilot with 30 years of experience flying commercial aircraft, a flight crew instructor on how to respond to emergencies in the air, specialized in accident investigations, and providing consulting safety services through his own company: Safety Reliability Methods.

Leaders Get Energy from Their Team
“I made the brace for impact announcement in the cabin and immediately, through the hardened cockpit door, I heard the flight attendants begin shouting their commands in response to my command to brace. “Heads down. Stay down”. I could hear them clearly. They were chanting it in unison over and over again to the passengers, to warn them and instruct them. And I felt very comforted by that. I knew immediately that they were on the same page. That if I could land the airplane, that they could get (the passengers) out safely.”

Against All Odds a Successful Outcome
“It was a hard landing. And, then we scooted along the surface for some point. And then at some point, the nose finally did come down as the speed decreased. And then we turned slightly to the left and stopped. When we landed and the airplane came to a stop, it was better than I expected. I sensed that the aircraft was intact, that the touchdown was survivable and that we had a good chance of getting everybody out. I was confident.

I think (that the plane did not sink) largely because the airplane remained mostly intact.

I very closely achieved the parameters I was trying to achieve.

When (we) landed, I and the first officer looked at each other, and I said: “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought”. And then we quickly began doing our duties. He was running the evacuation checklist while I opened the door and commanded evacuate.”

Luck Must be Part of the Ingredients for Success
To the question: Why are you leaving? Following is the response from First Officer Skiles:

I think it’s a lot of things. It’s we all did our jobs. Sully did his job. I did my job. Sheila, Doreen, and Donna (the flight attendants) did their jobs. And the passengers did their jobs. They quietly got out of the airplane, did what they had to do, got out on the wings. As you say, no pushing, no shoving. And then certainly the people in the boats who came to — came to save us…And, we had good fortune as well.”

First Officer Skiles could have added that there was no issue with the plane, an Airbus A320, as well.

President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Al Gore have noted in their speeches that the Chinese expression for crisis consists of two characters side by side. The first symbol for “danger”, the second symbol for “opportunity”. A crisis is always an inflection point, a unique moment in someone’s life when the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.

In crisis situations, people reveal themselves. As Francois-Rene Chateaubriand wrote, “moments of crisis produce a redoubling of life in a man”.

Let’s hope for more stories like Captain Sully Sullenberger and US Airways Flight 1549.

Note 1: Captain Sully Sullenberger has a public profile on LinkedInWikipedia and Facebook.

Note 2: President Kennedy speech was in Indianapolis in 1965 and Vice-President Gore’s was for his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 2007. Al Gore has used also the symbol of a Crisis in Chinese in his book: ”An Inconvenient Truth”.

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Categories: Leadership