Lessons from “Sully”

By | September 29, 2016 | 0 Comments

              

US Airways Flight 1549

Clint Eastwood’s movie “Sully” is very much worth seeing. Though not as dramatic as “American Sniper,” it depicts a calmer and less flamboyant type of hero, but a hero nonetheless.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and an experienced airline pilot, was in command, assisted by First Officer Jeffrey Skiles. The movie deals briefly with Sullenberger’s early life and his love of flying, and it deals at length with the investigation of the incident.

Regrettably, the screenplay omits two important quotations from Sullenberger:

● There isn’t a checklist for everything.

Sully was referring to the unprecedented accident for which he became famous. About three minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia, the Airbus A320-214 ran into a flight of Canada geese. These birds can weigh as much as 20 pounds and have a wingspan of 7 feet. Think of a Thanksgiving turkey. Then think of a flock of them. Then think of them being sucked into two jet engines, with rotors spinning.

As a result, the plane lost power in both engines, which were essentially destroyed. Loss of all engine power at such a low altitude is something that pilots dread, but very rarely confront. Sullenberger initially planned to return to LaGuardia, but the plane was too low, and Manhattan is devoid of long, flat areas for a crash landing. Sully also decided that Teterboro airport in New Jersey was too far, and saw the Hudson River as their only hope of avoiding a crash into tall buildings – that is, an unintentional repeat of 9/11.

Sully was correct. Computer and pilot simulations showed that any other course of action would have resulted in a crash, killing all 155 aboard, and many on the ground as well. But the basis of his lifesaving decision was his judgment. Checklists are beloved by aviators. But as he said, there was no checklist for this unprecedented situation.

I am not an aviator. I have been up in a small plane exactly once, sitting in the right seat. But as a physician, I am all too familiar with checklists. Part of my training was in a busy but poorly equipped county hospital. As a result, I was forced to learn how to improvise, adapt, overcome. As an Air Force pilot, so did Sully. And on that day, he put those lessons to good use, despite the absence of a checklist.

Many of us have had the misfortune to come into contact with checklist-obsessed bureaucrats, paper shufflers, and pencil pushers. Many of us have had to go around or behind these obstructionists, who seemed determined to block us from doing our jobs. The bigger government gets, the more such bureaucrats there will be, and the harder it will be for us to keep things going. It will be harder to emulate Sully, who knew what to do in an emergency – checklist or not.

● It 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.

Author and talk-show host Dennis Prager speaks about the moral bank account. For example, say a man has led an exemplary life. Say he is a good son, a good husband, a good father, and a good worker. He has an ample balance in his moral bank account. So he is entitled to make a withdrawal. In an ambiguous situation, he is entitled to be believed. If he makes a minor slip, he is entitled to be forgiven.

Sully’s point is similar. Throughout our lives, we accumulate experience. What we do, and how conscientiously we do it, determines the content of that bank account. If, like Sully, we spend the years doing responsible, skillful, useful things, our account continues to grow. Think of it as a rainy-day account.

Then a day may come when we are forced to make a large withdrawal. Unlike Sully, most of us are not airline pilots with hundreds of souls in our care. But all of us have responsibilities to others, whether or not we choose to recognize those responsibilities. Let us emulate Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III. Let us do our best to build up that account of experience, education, and training – in whatever we do in life.

We hope that we will never be called upon to make as large a withdrawal as Sully was. But no matter the size of the withdrawal, we can try to build up an account large enough to cover it. Then improvise, adapt, overcome will be a bit easier – or even possible.

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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