Any one listening to BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday (Friday 30.10.09) around 7.45am was treated to hear the difference made by someone’s who’s truly values-driven. Captain Chesley Sullenberger told of his heroic ditching of US Airlines Flight 1549 in January 2009. Not that he’d have it down as heroic. He said he felt all the human things but just did his job in spite of them. He never thought he would die that day. He ‘had the confidence’ that he would ‘solve the problem’.
Hit by bird strike, the A320 tale unfolds in just 208 seconds from take off at La Guardia to a super smooth landing in the Hudson. Computing his options and odds of success, a minute into the flight, he told Air Traffic Control that he was unable to make any airport and the Hudson was his only choice. According to them, there was then an eerie silence. They believed, they’d heard the last words and death sentence of all 155 on board.
One wing tip in the water and all would perish. ‘Sully’ had seen the footage of the hijacked Boeing off the east coast of Africa. He knew the penalties of failure.
But he did it. He pulled it off. Like a scene from a movie according to eye witness accounts. It was all so calm as the water taxis were quick to aid. A ferry passenger Janis Krums captured the surreal scene with his iphone on Twitpic.
How did Sully do it?
Well at 57, he says he had a lot of life experience to draw upon. But how many people do we know that have done exactly the same done for years? Sully’s not like that. He wasn’t interested in just being a good pilot. He wanted to be the best a pilot he could be. He knew that meant not just growing his technical skills as a pilot but also personally. What drove that?
Well he’s an ex-fighter and glider pilot. Sully’s also an instructor with his own safety consultancy. Sitting on the safety and air accident panel for the Airline Pilots Association, he has participated in many investigations. So technically, he was probably the best person to be sat in that pilot’s seat that day.
But he went beyond technical skills that day.
He says he’s thought about what made him make the difference that day. In fact he’s written a book about it. He thinks it’s because he cared. It’s as simple as that.
He showed his care, not just in his expert handling of the plane but also, once landed, he walked the plane twice – waist-high in water – to check all his passengers were off before he made for the safety of the wing.
His courage doubtless inspired the rest of the crew. His co-pilot gave the shirt off his back to a passenger in need as a result of the icy waters of the Hudson.
US Airlines came out of it well. Their spokesman delivered a beautifully crafted press announcement. The company put their passengers and their families first – seeking first to reassure and then give means to gain reassurance. Then finishing with the emphatic commitment to safety: ‘it always is, always has been and always will be paramount.”
But given it’s taken this incident to get Sully back on the earning curve he was used to, my first studies won’t be of US Airlines but I’m off to buy his book. [link].
Lesson 1: crisis and issue management
• Prepare – when crisis strikes, you need to embed systems so you switch to ‘automatic’ rather than having to wrestle with being human!
• Systems – agree protocols.
• Be nimble – keep considering your options and assessing your odds of success.
• Test – once the systems are in place, ensure they work – think of it as flying a flight simulator.
• Keep communicating and keep it crisp – even if it’s a word eg in Sully’s case ‘unable’ was all he said to air traffic control when declining the use of an airport and opting for the Hudson. Equally, passengers were simply told ‘brace for impact’ so that he could concentrate on landing.
Lesson 2¨ values driven person/organisations
• Be proactive – like Sully, be the best you can be.
• Priorities – deal with problems as they arise.
• Confidence – believe in your ability to solve this problem and the one after.