Today is the 10 year anniversary of the US Airways Flight 1549 having to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River only a few moments after takeoff. There were no casualties. How did Captain Sullenberger prepare for such a feat when it had never been done before? Simulations, deliberate practice and situational planning. Below is an excerpt from our book, Cultivating Excellence (pp 215-218), where we address this amazing accomplishment.


With plenty of sunshine and a mild breeze out of the northeast, January 15, 2009, dawned a cold but pleasant winter day in New York City. US Airways captain “Sully” Sullenberger was on his last day of a four-day flying trip and was assigned to an A320 passenger jet, Flight 1549, from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, a short flight pilots generally considered a “piece of cake.” Sullenberger and his copilot Jeff Skiles boarded the jet about forty-five minutes prior to scheduled takeoff and began a series of preflight checklist items while the passengers boarded the plane. He decided that Skiles would perform the takeoff as part of his ongoing captain’s training.

At 3:25 p.m., the jet lifted off and began climbing to the north over the Bronx. Just before reaching an altitude of 3,000 feet, the jet hit a flock of geese, which caused a “flameout” (a complete loss of thrust) on both engines. Sullenberger immediately took control of the jet and radioed to the air controller that he had lost both engines and was returning to the airport. He quickly realized, however, that he had neither the altitude nor the airspeed to get back to LaGuardia—or any other airport. His only alternative was to put the plane down on the nearest flat surface . . . the Hudson River. But landing a passenger jet with 155 people onboard in the Hudson River in January? Impossible!

Sullenberger deftly guided the powerless jet over the George Washington Bridge and impacted the water near a group of workboats and ferries, which he knew could help in the rescue effort. Although he had never practiced such a maneuver in flight training (or even in a simulator), Sullenberger performed a perfect “ditching” maneuver; the aircraft remained upright and intact as it skidded across the water and came to a stop. He and his crew then proceeded to safely evacuate every passenger and crew member. Sullenberger was the last to leave the barely floating jet. The total flight time for US Airways Flight 1549 was six minutes.

As you read this story, what were you thinking? From a passenger’s perspective, you might have thought about how you would have reacted to the sudden emotions of fear and helplessness that must have been pervasive in the cabin. Perhaps you thought about whether you could have quickly found the emergency exits or whether you could have found and inflated your life pre- server. Or perhaps you thought about how you would have helped the passenger next to you if he or she were in a state of panic? I bet you learned that paying attention to the flight attendant’s safety instructions before takeoff was a lot more important than you’d previously thought.

The story is also a great learning tool for pilots, flight attendants, and anyone concerned with best outcomes. As the pilot, what would you have done in this situation? Would you have tried to return to the airport instead of ditching? How far could your airplane glide from 3,000 feet at 250 knots if you had to execute a 180-degree turn to line up on the runway? What is the proper landing attitude for a ditching? What would you and your flight attendants do after the landing? These are all questions that were widely dis- cussed in pilot lounges and aircraft training facilities around the world, and we are all safer as a result of the lessons learned.

The main point of the Flight 1549 narrative is learning the power of storytelling. While there are many methods of learning, storytelling is nearly always the most effective because it evokes an emotional and psychological reaction to real-life experiences. The ability to imagine yourself in the story transforms you from a mere reader or viewer to an “active” participant, thereby greatly enhancing the learning experience.

Dynamic simulations, including war games, are a step up from the storytelling experience because they involve individuals who are not just hearing or reading a story but are actual players in the narrative. These “story-livers” have the most powerful and enduring learning experience of all.

Excerpt from Cultivating Excellence (2017). All rights reserved.