Studying Sully: Lessons in Leadership from the Miracle on the Hudson

Next month will be the 11th anniversary of Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic emergency landing on the Hudson River. On an icy January day in New York City, Sully’s plane struck a flock of birds shortly after takeoff, causing power failure in both engines and rapid loss of altitude. In just over three harrowing minutes, Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles avoided catastrophe by expertly guiding their plane to a perfect water landing, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew members. Sully’s story is a powerful lesson in preparation, bravery, and leadership, and all of us can apply these principles to better ourselves professionally and personally.

Know Your People and Their Strengths

Though heralded as the hero, Sully gives tremendous credit to the other individuals involved in the rescue. The emergency was unprecedented—most airline employees never experience a single-engine failure in their career, let alone total engine failure—yet all of them rose to the challenge, adapted to the situation, and helped save 155 lives. Flight attendants followed Sully’s direction perfectly, guiding passengers through emergency procedures and facilitating a safe and calm evacuation. Ferry captains and crews on the Hudson River, though not designated as rescue craft operators, arrived on the scene moments after the plane hit the water and brought people to safety.
Sully expresses the most gratitude to First Officer Skiles, who followed Sully’s lead without hesitation. He explains, “In the more common emergencies we train for…it is usually optimal for the first officer to fly so the captain can think about the situation, make decisions, and give direction,” but “it made the most sense for me to take the controls.” This was not an expression of distrust in Skiles’ flying ability. Sully knew his co-pilot had recently been through standard retraining on this type of aircraft, which meant he had just practiced the emergency procedures. Skiles knew the difficult-to-navigate emergency handbook, and he could quickly proceed through the checklist and attempt engine re-starts, giving Sully the pertinent information he needed to make landing decisions. Though an expert pilot in his own right, it is difficult to estimate how Sully would have fared without the support of such a skilled and cooperative team.

Stick to Procedure, but Think on Your Feet

Sully explains that their successful landing was due to a combination of years of tried and true experience and quick, “ingenious” improvising. One individual to whom he gives much credit is Patrick Harten, the Air Traffic Controller who managed Sully’s take-off and responded to his distress signal about the birds. In more typical emergencies, controllers are trained to ask pilots basic questions, such as how much fuel they have left and how many passengers are on board. This information can affect emergency procedures and plans for rescue efforts. However, Harten consciously chose not to ask Captain Sullenberger these questions. He later explained to the Captain, “I didn’t want to pester you. I knew I had to let you fly the plane.” Patrick also made the unconventional choice to leave his phone lines open with controllers at other airports, so they could listen to his and Sully’s conversation without anyone having to repeat themselves. Though he strayed from his training, these improvised decisions saved precious time and made it so Sully could think clearly and quickly. Sometimes our in-depth knowledge of procedure best serves us by showing when we need to break procedure.

Others before Self

After safely landing the plane, Sully knew the emergency was far from over. He now had 154 people in a broken vessel sinking into the icy water. With expert coordination and control, he and his crew calmly evacuated the passengers onto life rafts and the wings of the plane in 3.5 minutes. After the cabin was empty, Sully walked down the aisle two more times, the second time into waist-deep water, to make sure everyone was out. On his way out of the plane, he reminded co-pilot Skiles to grab his life vest. Sully also took his overcoat, and when he climbed into the life raft he immediately handed it to a shivering passenger. When the first rescue boat arrived and approached his raft, Sully quickly directed it to the other side of the plane, where he knew some of the passengers were standing on the wing and were at risk of falling into the water. It would be several hours before he received confirmation of the headcount, but in that time Sully incessantly quizzed the emergency responders as to whether the total number rescued equaled 155.
Though few of us will face an emergency of this magnitude in our lifetime, the expertise and quick thinking displayed during the “miracle on the Hudson” reminds us that there is no substitute for thorough preparation, and well-run teams can tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. Perhaps most importantly, Sully’s example teaches us that true leadership means putting others before yourself.

Works Cited
Sullenberger III, Chelsey B. (2009). “Sully”. New York: William Morrow.

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