Lessons from a Landing on the Hudson River

Captain Sully of U.S. Airways 1549 shares his take on leadership, integrity and making a difference.

By Paul Studebaker

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On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger boarded U.S. Airways flight 1549 and departed LaGuardia Airport with 30 years of experience as a pilot, flight instructor and accident investigator. Less than two minutes later, the Airbus A320 encountered a flock of Canada geese and lost both engines. Four minutes after that, Sullenberger landed the plane on the Hudson River and became an American folk hero.

Today at ABB Automation & Power World in Houston, Sullenberger described how the moment changed his life and what it has taught him about the importance of leadership, integrity and teamwork.

"For the past six years, I've reminded people that our success was the result of the efforts of many people, including First Officer Jeffrey Skiles and the entire crew," Sullenberger said. "Jeff is not here today but if he were, he would say, 'Hey, I deserve some credit. I was the one who was flying the plane when we hit the birds and made Sully famous.'"

'Pull up, pull up'

After the accident, as they do for every FAA investigation, six investigators met in a room to hear what was on the recorders. They heard every voice, including the pilots, air traffic control and the synthesized voice of the alarm system demanding that the pilot "pull up, pull up—terrain, terrain—too low, too low—flaps—gear—pull up." After the review, one of the investigators said, "That pilot has been training for this his entire life."

In fact, Sullenberger said, his training started before he was even born. "From when my grandparents raised my parents to believe that education is valuable, that ideas are important, and to strive for excellence," he said.

In our 21st century, it's now an economic necessity to learn, to grow, to stretch and to reinvent ourselves—to innovate, which Sullenberger defined as, "to change before you're forced to. I learned this from my parents and through basic training in the Army Reserve, a system designed to change us, to challenge us, to tear us away from the familiar and find strengths we didn't know we had. To learn that it's not about me, it's about us.

"How often are we called upon to demonstrate duty, capacity, integrity and courage, as if lives depended on it? More often than we realize."

Results matter, but also how they're obtained matters. Ego can be a powerful driving force, but "unchecked, it can be your worst enemy," Sullenberger said. "It can wall you off from others, from your team's critical knowledge and abilities."

Failures of culture, leadership

The events that led to BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill were "more of a leadership and cultural failure than a technical failure. You have to consider the human aspect, from the beginning," Sullenberger said. "You can't outsource core values to a third party."

It's said that safety begins in the boardroom, but that presupposes that the board cares and has the knowledge. Leaders must create an atmosphere and reward system where people can perform according to their innate desire to do good work, be safe and excel.

When core values, leadership and teamwork align, you're prepared for the unexpected, and can innovate to meet new situations, solve problems and succeed.

"Flight 1549 was a novel situation for which we did not—could not—train, a water landing," Sullenberger said. "In all my life, my only training for a water landing was one hypothetical classroom discussion."

Events are almost never caused by a single failure—they're the result of a chain of events. "In the military, we train to a great extent on every detail, but on a mission you change and adapt," Sullenberger said. "Like Flight 1549, you may have only seconds or feet to act."

"It's afterward, in debriefing, when we learn. In aviation, it's a formal process that can take a year or more after an incident, with structural analysis, re-creation and reviews of recordings and data. The lessons are bought with blood—we know what we know because people have died."

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  • <p>I am still amazed by this story. I like the emphasis on discipline and teamwork, a requirement for success in any group endeavor.</p>

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