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Life Lessons from Flight 1549

January 15, 2009 was the day 155 people aboard Flight 1549 experienced the sudden impact of an unforeseen crisis. On this day 12 years ago, a group of passengers, crew members and first responders were forced into an unimagined situation that was an emergency of a lifetime, and overcame the unknown by doing one thing: working together.

I know that effective crisis management isn’t the result of a miracle, but instead the product of highly effective teamwork paired with preparation. And I think what we learned that day ripples far beyond the confines of the cockpit.

When our daughters were growing up they sometimes referred to Lorrie and me as “Overly Prepared Parents” (OPPs, for short!). They rolled their eyes when we bought them roadside emergency kits to keep in their cars before going off to college. But with the passage of time they’ve grown to appreciate their childhood with “OPPs.” As they now say, “adulting is hard'' and preparing for the small things can only help make bigger crises seem more manageable. (Needless to say, the roadside kits that made them roll their eyes have saved them a time or two!)

It’s safe to say that we’ve all faced similar challenges -- big and small -- over the last year, some for the first time, some ongoing, many still dealing with the aftermath. In an effort to better understand some of the common adversities that many of us face on a daily basis, I recently shared this post online, asking to hear from others who have questions on how to deal with a crisis.

In response, I have put together my thoughts on the most common questions I received. Each question below is representative of those shared by all of you about preparation, mindset, teamwork and optimism as related to a crisis. To those who shared your stories with me, I sincerely thank you and I hope my responses below provide you with both help and comfort during these difficult times.

How can I prepare for a crisis? What resources do you suggest for this type of training?

The most important part of preparation is attaining the knowledge and skills prior to needing them. Once a crisis hits, time is the enemy and there’s not time to learn everything you need to know. I encourage you to think through potential challenges you may face and have a game plan in place for each of them. Although you won’t know how effective your plan will be until the moment it is needed, it will be the foundation you can build upon.

When facing large or complex challenges that can seem overwhelming, like Flight 1549, set priorities, break the problem down into manageable pieces and deal with the most important ones first. And once you begin to take action, it’s a little easier to take on each subsequent one. Whether your challenge is COVID-19 and years long or a bird strike and emergency water landing that lasts less than three and a half minutes, the basic principles are the same.

Another piece of advice is to be observant of the challenges you face on a daily basis and debrief yourself once the situation is resolved. When I do this, I ask myself:
  • What signs did I notice?
  • Did I react quickly enough?
  • What did I do well?
  • What could have been done better?
This is a good way to practice crisis management on a small scale and sharpen the skills needed to successfully overcome bigger challenges in the future.

How can I maintain a sense of "calm" during and after a crisis?

A sense of calm is rooted in confidence. Confidence is rooted in reality.

During any phase of crisis you must be able to force calm on yourself in order to focus on the task at hand so you will be able to act and not freeze. I know, it’s much easier said than done...

This requires an incredible amount of mental discipline which, like any other skill, comes with exposure and practice. It’s a matter of paying attention, being curious, learning from experience and understanding how you can improve in the future.

And, ultimately, this is where hope comes from; it doesn’t come from wishful thinking, it comes from having actual capabilities based in the real world.

How can I navigate a crisis with a team I don’t know very well?

I met for the first time one of the three flight attendants and our first officer Jeff Skiles just three days before we boarded Flight 1549.

In my experience, the key to effective teamwork is to create a shared sense of responsibility for the outcome, working together toward a common goal:
  • Clearly communicate a vision
  • Provide a roadmap towards that vision
  • Make clear why the goal is important
  • And ensure that each team member is aware of the individual efforts they’re responsible for in the pursuit of the end goal
Because our crew had been trained this way we were able to work together to solve a problem that none of us had specifically prepared for.

How can I stay optimistic during challenging times?

I believe it’s important to have what I call “realistic optimism.” This is a mindset I developed over many decades of experience as a pilot.

Realistic optimism requires you to hold two very different thoughts in your mind at the same time:

The first is having a very real awareness of and accurate appreciation for the risks a particular circumstance poses and being honest about the challenges you’re facing.

The second is knowing with unshakable certainty that your knowledge, skills, experience and judgment will arm you and your team with the ability to work together to solve each problem until you have either solved them all, or solved as many as you can, enough to succeed and survive.

Having a clear view of the real threat + Having done the hard work so that you can implement a plan you’re confident in = Realistic optimism.

Optimism without concrete knowledge and skills is just wishful thinking.

What do you wish you had known as a young pilot?

  1. Temper your natural optimism of youth with strong doses of reality.

    As a young pilot, while I worked very hard to learn everything I could about flying and had developed strong knowledge and skills, had learned from the experiences of others, and was confident, I had not yet faced an ultimate challenge. My optimism was typical of most young adults who intellectually know that bad things can happen, but until they actually happen, lack the emotional knowledge of what that really entails. These experiences are what make risks real, and it is by learning from experience that we develop the kind of judgment that pilots (and all of us) must have.
  2. Be wary and be ready.

    Young pilots should always be vigilant and not complacent. Be aware of your situation and be actively looking for things that might go wrong—and think about how you would handle those things. Know that one day you will face some kind of a challenge, but also know that if you are a continuous learner, constantly striving for excellence, you will have prepared yourself for these challenges more thoroughly than you realize.
  3. Lastly, be able to build and lead a team.

    Whatever you accomplish in life, it’s likely that you won’t do it completely alone. Be open to the ideas of others, be willing to listen, and be willing to admit a mistake and learn from it. When we remember our common humanity and work together, there is little we cannot accomplish.