Composed Under Extreme Pressure: US Airways Flight 1549

IMG_2612-1At 3:25 in the afternoon, flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia airport with 155 passengers.

Things started unraveling only two minutes into the flight.

We’ve lost thrust on both engines,” Captain Chelsey Sullenberger tells Air Traffic Control (ATC). “We’re turning back to LaGuardia.”

The normal engine whine is replaced by a muffled sound resembling shoes tumbling in a dryer.

ATC directs flight 1549 to land at the nearby Teterboro airport.

At 3:29 pm, only 137 seconds after hitting a flock of birds, the captain replies, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

Captain Sullenberger sorted through an overwhelming amount of information like air speed and distances to the airports – then he analyzed the worst case scenario of each choice. What if they come up short of one of the two airports in the densely populated city?

After losing both engines, Captain Sullenberger sifted through several bad options and made the remarkable decision to ditch the massive Airbus A320 in the Hudson River.

Captain Sullenberger later said the moments before the crash were the “worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling” he had ever experienced.

Most humans shut down in times of extreme terror, so how did Captain Sullenberger stay composed while facing a violent death? (Audio here)

Every time I’ve experienced deadly confrontations, the moments seem to unwind in slow motion. Details become clearer. I get more focused when split seconds separate who lives and who dies. 

Being calm under fire is not genetic, it’s a learnable skill.

Whether you want to give a TED talk, launch a business or crash land an airliner, you can learn to function under extreme pressure.

Captain Sullenberger said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training and on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

The file cabinet analogy offers an idea how the mind processes information in the face of danger. Imagine a series of file folders that your brain rapidly scans for the answer to an unfolding scenario.

If there is not a folder containing the right answer, instinct takes over. Fight or flight is the evolutionary reflex that leads to panic under stress. Panic interrupts your ability to process complicated data or use fine motor skills.

If you cannot stay calm, you will not be able to perform well under stress.

To thrive under pressure, you have supply your mind with the right answers before you need them.

You acquire task specific skills through training. Pilots, for example, undergo rigorous flight training with an instructor.

But a pilot cannot practice water landings, so they often use flight simulators to rehearse extraordinary events. Your mind is also a powerful simulator, which is why high level athletes use visualization to choreograph their event.

But the most important skill – learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable – is often the most neglected.

There are two things that have taught me to welcome discomfort. Those are Jiu-Jitsu and being a perpetual student. 

Adults typically fear change, so when we are grown we create an environment that insulates us from the constant distress we felt as children.

That’s why so many are stuck in a rut — afraid to try anything new.

Parents always coach their kids from the sidelines, but rarely will they take up a new sport or hobby of their own.

We are afraid of being uncomfortable, yet we realize how important it is for our children.

Perpetual students are used to being in unchartered waters. They routinely accept new challenges, so they become accustomed to new and uncomfortable situations.

Jiu-Jitsu is the other activity that has had a profound impact on my life.

The goal in Jiu-Jitsu is to break your opponent’s limbs or to put him unconscious.

Every training day your partner is literally trying to hurt you, but because you can “tap out,” partners can train at near 100% speed without injury.

In order to improve, you are forced to repeatedly confront very uncomfortable positions.

Jiu-Jitsu is often compared to chess because of the mental strategy and complex multiple attacks driven by your opponent’s actions. You must be calm to process the complicated chess match of a Jiu-Jitsu bout.

Most readers will not try Jiu-Jitsu, but I doubt there is a shorter path to becoming calm under pressure than studying a combat sport with live sparing – boxing, wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu or similar.

The point is, you can learn to be calm under fire.

I suspect there are multiple paths of getting there, but they begin with mastering your field through training, education and visualization.

Then adopt a lifestyle with experiences that condition you to become comfortable being uncomfortable. 

2 Replies to “Composed Under Extreme Pressure: US Airways Flight 1549”

  1. The pilot’s side job was to study the causes of airplane crashes and to train other pilots and how to avoid them. He had survived a thousand crashes in a his mind, in his training, and in teaching others, so when it came time to survive one that involved a real airplane it was his 1,001st attempt.

    Seriously, there was no better pilot to be flying that plane that day.

    1. I think teaching is perhaps the fastest way to mastery — and as you describe Victor, another form of visualization. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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