Flight 1549: Sometimes Snap Decisions Are the Only Choice

Most emergencies unfold slowly; but not this one.

Have you ever noticed that for every cliché, there seems to be another one that directly contradicts the first one? "Out of sight, out of mind" vs. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Or more to my point; "Haste makes waste" vs. "He who hesitates is lost." Of the last two, pilots are often told that the first thing they should do in an emergency is, "Wind your watch" -- in other words, stop and think about what to do next. Rash action can make a bad situation much worse. That's good advice, most of the time.

But 155 people can be grateful that US Airways pilots "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles must have been wearing battery-powered watches last week. Their split-second decision making and quick action led to one of the most remarkable incidents in aviation history. To the extent possible, they followed "the book," but they also reacted decisively in choosing their best option; then executed the water landing (a maneuver not practiced in simulators) with skill and precision. They followed it up with a combination textbook/common sense evacuation of the Airbus that resulted in all surviving. Let's not forget to credit the flight attendant who stopped a passenger from opening the aft emergency exit when she realized it was under water.

Certainly, Sullenberger's experience as a glider pilot helped. He can now log one more unpowered landing with a truly unique entry under 'Aircraft Type.' But I also feel confident that his background as a fighter pilot contributed to his decisiveness under fire. Battle of Britain Spitfire ace Robert Stanford-Tuck once told me that he taught new pilots, when under attack, to "do something -- anything -- immediately. Even if it's the wrong thing." To be sure, we pilots need to differentiate between situations that call for such immediacy and those where it really is best to stop and 'wind our watch.' Sullenberger and Skiles hit on just the right balance, for which we can all be profoundly grateful.