Friday, February 13, 2009

There's only one pilot at a time

Tons of stuff to read on a long flight to Brazil...

Captain Sullenberger ("Sully"), the pilot who "saved the lives of 155 passengers on the stricken US Airways Flight 1549" last month, gave us all a "case study of leadership in a crisis."

[Coincidentally, Sully lives just a few blocks from me.]

This article outlines the "top five lessons from the crash of flight 1549."


1. Don’t panic: Sullenberger told CBS’ Katie Couric that he immediately knew he was in a life-or-death situation: “It was the worst sickening pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.

But he didn’t let that fear keep him from acting calmly and effectively. On the cockpit recording, Sullenberger’s tone of voice is even and controlled as disaster loomed.

Lesson: You can’t lead from the fetal position.

2. There’s only one pilot at a time: The instant his engines cut out over New York City, Sullenberger turned to his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, and said “my aircraft,” taking control of the airplane. Stiles responded quickly and simply: “your aircraft.”

Notice what the two men did not do: They did not argue over who was in charge, or whose theory of crash landing was better. They had only one chance to get it right, and Sully was in the captain’s seat, so he made the call.

Lesson: Leaders have to be allowed to lead.

3. Improvise, Improvise, Improvise: Sully cranked through a list of options with his co-pilot and with air traffic control. Return to La Guardia Airport? Couldn’t make it. Bear right toward Teterboro? Still too far. Sully weighed the advice he was getting, and made a unilateral decision, telling air traffic control simply: “We’ll be in the Hudson.

Lesson: Weigh the options, and then move on. Sometimes, the worst choice on the table is the only one available.

4. Experts matter: Sullenberger was perhaps the ideal pilot to handle the Hudson landing: He’d flown for more than 19,000 hours, ran his own transportation safety consultancy, and had participated in several National Transportation Safety Board accident investigations.

Lesson: Some people are better qualified than others – sometimes you’re the pilot, and sometimes you’re the flight attendant.

5. Don’t worry about public opinion – success makes for great numbers: Couric asked Sullenberger whether he thought about the passengers while he was struggling to land the plane. Sully said, in essence, no. Instead, Sully was focused on the task immediately in front of him. “I knew I had to solve this problem,” he said.

Lesson: Hesitation can mean disaster. Imagine Sully conducting an opinion poll – if asked, surely some of the passengers would have wanted him to try for Teterboro, some for La Guardia, and some for the water landing. By the time he’d decided what to do, it would be too late to do it. What’s more, it’s sometimes better to make a bad decision than none at all. After all, maybe Sully could have landed at Teterboro and saved a $60 million aircraft as well as the lives of the passengers and crew. We’ll never know. But debating the option any longer would surely have cost the lives and the plane.

What’s scary about the Sully model is that you only know if it works after the fact. Until the moment of impact, everyone – co-pilot, crew, passengers – is operating on faith. If Sully had been the wrong guy for the job, or if a sudden gust of wind had tipped a wing into the river too early, we’d be learning the opposite lessons now: Sully should have consulted more, delegated more, or listened to the air traffic controller. It is exactly the same with the stimulus.