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  Home > Newsletter > What Pilots Can Learn from Capt. Sullenberger about Aircraft and Aviation, June 2011

What Pilots Can Learn from Capt. Sullenberger about Aircraft and Aviation

It was recently announced that "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, will be the new aviation and safety correspondent for CBS News. With Capt. Sullenberger back in the spotlight, here’s a look back at that remarkable landing and what pilots can learn from Capt. Sullenberger about aircraft and aviation.

American Heroes of Aviation

On January 15, 2009, Capt. Sullenberger took off from LaGuardia Airport for Charlotte/Douglas International Airport on US Airways Flight 1549. About six minutes after takeoff, a flock of Canadian geese took out both engines on the Airbus 320-214.

What happened next made Capt. Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeff Skiles and the flight attendants American heroes—while the cabin filled with acrid smoke and the smell of jet fuel, Sullenberger overruled traffic control’s suggestion to try and land 10 miles away in Teterboro, NJ. Instead, he made the split-second decision to land Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Sullenberger and the crew’s quick thinking and calm focus saved the lives of all 155 people on board, and the entire crew was awarded the Master's Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.

What Pilots and Aircraft Personnel Can Learn

What can pilots and aviation professionals learn from Sullenberger and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549?

  • Deliberate calm. Contrary to popular belief, people like Sullenberger do not just stay calm, while other weaker individuals give in to panic. Fear and panic are automatic brain responses under frightful and dangerous circumstances.

    What made Sullenberger truly heroic was his ability to push through his fear, to override it with rational thought. To be able to think, "Stay calm, keep it together, you have a plane to land," and then actually do it. Neuroscientists call this metacognition. Pilots call it "deliberate calm," the ability to give oneself an automatic correction under stressful circumstances.

  • Embrace the flight simulator. Flight simulators are an incredible tool for teaching pilots and aircraft personnel how to stay calm and focused under duress. First, simulators can teach technical skills, such as how to land a plane that has lost power in the water. But just as important, a simulator can train individuals how to override their fear so they can think clearly amid the chaos.

  • Preparation, and more preparation. Sullenberger has said that he "had done a pretty good job of preparing himself for whatever might come." That’s an understatement, considering that he has logged more than 20,000 flight hours over the course of his career, from Air Force jet fighter pilot to commercial airline pilot. It takes years of training and discipline to be as prepared as he was that day the engines went out on Flight 1549. The lesson for all pilots and aircraft professionals is to—as the Boy Scouts mantra says—be prepared. Train, learn, log hours, stay sharp in order to be prepared for whatever may come.

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