Jeff Skiles, copilot of now legendary U.S Airways Flight 1549, began his keynote address to attendees of the Rockwell Automation TechED event this week in Orlando by placing them squarely in the cockpit jump seat the morning of January 15, 2009.
“To your left is Sully,” Skiles said, referring to the flight’s pilot, Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III, who he had just met some three days earlier. “To your right is me,” Skiles said.
A pilot and copilot who had just met one another hardly seems a recipe for effective teamwork and communication, Skiles confessed, adding that he had just completed training on the Airbus A320 airplane the previous week. “The crew had started together in Pittsburgh, then a turn in Charlotte. We had one more turn in New York, and we were done,” Skiles said.
“And New York’s LaGuardia airport is where we picked you up—one of 150 passengers on our full flight back.”
The skies were clearing, but it was turning colder, as Sully taxied the airplane out to the runway. “He set the parking brake, and said ‘your plane,’ at which point I took control of the aircraft.” It was one of a series of practiced, nearly reflexive exchanges between Skiles and Sully that continued as the plane accelerated down the runway and took off. “Positive rate, 80 [knots], 120 [knots], gear up—we do these same statements every time we fly,” Skiles said. These practiced procedures are why even two pilots who haven’t worked together before can communicate effectively, he explained.
“At 3,000 feet, I remember something catching my attention off to the right. Then Sully said ‘birds’ and we were upon them.” As Canada geese pounded the airplane like hail, a bird went through the core of each of the twin engines, knocking them both out of commission. “You could feel the sag, the deceleration,” Skiles said.
After a moment of shock, the more seasoned Sully said “my plane,” and an admittedly relieved Skiles immediately knew that his job had changed from pilot to troubleshooter. “It was a practiced transition; I immediately knew my job was to get those engines restarted.” He quickly found the appropriate procedure, but found it was three pages long—clearly written for a restart at 30,000 feet, not 3,000.
Meanwhile, air traffic control had redirected Sully for a return to LaGuardia, which lined the aircraft up with the Hudson River. Densely populated neighborhoods stood between them and a return to LaGuardia or diversion to Teterboro airport in New Jersey, and with the plane quickly losing altitude, Sully decided the river was their only option. Yet again, training kicked in: he grabbed the cabin phone and announced “brace for impact,” which in turn set the flight attendants on their own well-practiced course of action. “Brace, brace, head down, stay down,” they reiterated to the passengers. Only five and a half minutes had elapsed since take-off.
Five and a half minutes
Fortunately, the water was calm and there were no boats in the aircraft’s path. Nose up, it hit the water hard on the tail, settled, then water cascaded over the cockpit. ”That wasn’t so bad,” Skiles recalled thinking. But it was worse in back: the belly had been ripped out of the plane, and a structural member from below had pierced the calf of a flight attendant. The plane was quickly filling with icy water—but remarkably calm passengers filed out onto the wings where a flotilla of boats soon brought them to safety. “These were professional passengers,” Skiles said of the orderly evacuation. ”They all did their jobs. Some went straight back to airport, and caught the next flight to Charlotte.”
No one aboard Flight 1549 lost their lives that day. “But was it a miracle?” Skiles asked. “We weren’t alone that day. We were supported by all of the advances in airline safety management systems that had been made over the previous decade.”
He cited his own early days of piloting, when most safety efforts focused on the machines themselves—not on the people. “The airplanes became more reliable, but pilot error as a cause of accidents remained.” Among the organizational obstacles to improving safety was a top-down, command-and-control culture that hearkened to the industry’s military roots. “It took a number of years to change our engrained culture.”
Training and standardized processes have contributed greatly to improved safety, but the airline industry has also cultivated a policy of sharing even non-consequential mistakes toward the greater goal of “combatting the adverse outcome,” Skiles said. “We self-report any mistake that we make, and if we do so we are assured immunity from retribution.” Flight deck observers regularly ride along to observe adherence to processes and practices—and to document any mistakes that happen. The planes, too, can report mistakes through their own monitoring systems
“We learn through our collective experiences. We identify the threats, define preventive procedures and implement training to prevent recurrence,” Skiles said. The last commercial aircraft fatality in the U.S. was more than 15 years ago, and Skiles gives much of the credit to progress made on the industry’s safety management systems over past two decades. “It’s not important that mistakes are made, or that threats are identified. What’s most important is how the organization responds.”
And on that cold January 15th in 2009, “Our training, procedures and systems did not fail us,” Skiles said. “Communication did not break down.”