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Deliberate Calm and Other Safety Lessons from Capt. Sullenberger

The featured film, Sully, about Captain Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is set to be released September 9. Here’s a safety review of what we can learn from Capt. Sullenberger.

In the movie Sully directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks, the events before, during and following the “Miracle on the Hudson” are shown as chronicled in Sullenberger’s 2010 memoir.

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 smoke and the smell of jet fuel, Sullenberger overruled traffic control’s suggestion to land 10 miles away in Teterboro, NJ.

Instead, he made the split-second decision to land the plane in the Hudson River just outside LaGuardia. Sullenberger and the crew’s quick thinking and calm focus saved the lives of all 155 people on board. The entire crew was awarded the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.

On March 3, 2010 Capt. Sullenberger retired from US Airways after 30 years as a commercial pilot. Today, Sullenberger travels the world speaking on, and developing protocols for airline safety. He is also the co-chairman of the EAA’s Young Eagles youth introduction-to-aviation program, and the News Aviation and Safety Expert for CBS News.

In the interest of safety and spirit of inspiration, let’s review what pilots and aviation professionals learn from Sullenberger and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549.

Deliberate calm

Fear and panic are automatic brain responses under frightful and dangerous circumstances. What made Capt. Sullenberger truly heroic and an unquestionably excellent pilot was his ability to push through his fear, and 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.

Train with a flight simulator

Flight simulators are an incredible tool for teaching pilots and aircraft personnel how to stay calm and focused in stressful situations. 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.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Sullenberger has said that he “had done a pretty good job of preparing himself for whatever might come.” In fact, he 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 calm and prepared as he was that day the engines went out on Flight 1549. The lesson for all pilots and aircraft professionals is — as the Boy Scouts mantra says — to be prepared. Train, learn, log hours, and stay healthy and sharp to be prepared for whatever may come.

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