Training, teamwork and procedures can make the possible seem miraculous. That was the message offered by Jeff Skiles, co-pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed safely in the Hudson River after losing both its engines in an encounter with a flock of Canada geese at 3,200 ft. on Jan. 15. Skiles spoke at the opening session of the Invensys North America Client Conference this week in Houston.
"Faced with a challenging situation, several hundred people banded together and did their jobs," said Skiles, who cited a lifetime of training and standardized procedures as additional keys to the successful landing on the Hudson. "It was a chain that led to salvation. Each person involved was a link in that chain. Not one link failed. It speaks to the incredible power of what people can accomplish when they work together to accomplish a common goal. For me, that's always going to be the real story of Flight 1549."
The son of two pilots, Skiles said he'd decided on a career path at a young age. "I pumped gas to pay for my licenses and after earning a B.S. degree in geology, I got a job flying the mail," he said.
Remarkably, Skiles had met the aircraft's captain, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger for the first time at the beginning of their four-day tour of flights together. The flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, N.C., was to be their final flight in the series.
"In our business, it's our training and our adherence to procedures that allows us to work as a team," he explained. "Sully and I both have more than 20,000 flying hours. What allowed the two of us to do so well was our training, our teamwork and our procedures. As we accelerate down the runway, for example, we're not allowed to engage in any extraneous conversation below 10,000 ft."
It was Skiles' first time flying the Airbus A320 when he saw the line of geese and thought the aircraft would fly right over them. "They sounded like hail hitting the airplane, and then both engines immediately rolled back to idle," he said. Sullenberger, as the captain, then took over the airplane as it began gliding without engines, trading air speed for altitude.
Skiles, according to procedures, immediately reached for his emergency checklist. "The air traffic controller was vectoring us back to the runway," recalled Skiles. "I was resetting computers to provide information. These are computer-controlled engines, so you shut them down and restart them when they act up. To strike off across land, we'd have to be sure we could make it. Our only option was the Hudson. What I remember most about the descent is the noise. We have a large collection of alarms. It seems like every aural alert was going off at once."
Sticking to their training and procedures helped Skiles and Sullenberger to focus, despite the onslaught of noise and alarming systems. "We had to start slowing the plane down," he said. "We were gliding at 210 knots. At that speed the plane would break apart when it hit the water. We slowed down to about 140."
Once they landed, the aircraft was evacuated in an orderly fashion. "We were throwing life vests out to the passengers on the wings," he remembered. "The wings were slippery with jet fuel. The passengers were frequent flyers going home from work. They helped each other throughout the ordeal. Eight of them were so unfazed that when we got to a ferry terminal, they hailed a cab and got on the next flight to Charlotte."
Accidents are almost always caused by a chain of smaller oversights, said Skiles. "When the birds flew into our aircraft, we were shocked, but we didn't panic," he recalled. "Our training helped us. Every member of the crew knew what to do. Today, a flight crew works more like a baseball team than like a traditional, top-down management structure. Every member of our crew has to be able to communicate."
Procedures were another big key that accounted for their success. "We call them 'barriers to error,'" he explained. "Procedures allow employees to act independently from management. It enables and empowers employees."
On Jan. 15, Flight 1549 had a lot of luck and a lot of help. "Everyone had an equally important role to play," said Skiles. "We were nothing more than the technicians on-site, following the procedures and using the teamwork. Most pilots spend lifetimes preparing for an incident that never happens. I wasn't scared because we knew what to do. We had a window to see out of. And we had a plan."