The news on January 15, 2009 were unbelievable. I recall watching passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 lined up on the wings of the plane in ankle-deep water, and thinking, “I hope this pilot is flying the next plane I am on” and also, “How did he do that?”
Temperance, confidence and strong decision-making skills helped Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger land a 150,000-pound plane on the Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 people on board. The story of the “Miracle on the Hudson” was recently made into the movie “Sully.” However what I find most inspiring about Captain Sullenberger is his determination to be the best pilot he can be and his love for flying, which is documented in his autobiographical “Highest Duty”.
There is a scene in the TLC documentary “Brace for Impact” (roughly at 23:30) where Captain Sullenberger is flying over the Hudson River and recounting how he landed the plane in one piece. Having “Situational Awareness” – i.e. a pilot’s ability “to create and maintain a very accurate real-time mental model of reality” – was key to his flawless execution of that emergency landing.
As the plane got closer to the water, Captain Sullenberger only kept two things on his mind: 1) the reality outside the plane and 2) the reality inside the cockpit. He kept repeating to himself “outside-inside, outside-inside” in order to have an accurate understanding of the situation. By balancing the reality in the cockpit and the reality outside the plane, Captain Sullenberger was able to keep the right speed, tilt and perfectly leveled wings.
Focusing on the plane’s descend while monitoring the plane’s speed helped Captain Sullenberger remain in control of the situation. “You either manage the situation or the situation manages you.” This was key to landing the plane safely.
The concept of Situational Awareness can also be applied to our own lives. Let’s say your boss is critical of a report you wrote. Instead of reacting defensively because you feel attacked, take a moment to analyze the entirety of the situation. What is the external reality (i.e. what are the facts)? Your boss did not like the report your wrote. Now looking inside yourself, how do you feel in this moment? You probably feel under appreciated (you worked hard the last couple of days to finish the report). You may even feel you are a bad worker (“I’ve been in this job for three years and I can’t even write a simple report”).
Instead of responding by saying something like, “Well, I didn’t have all the information I needed to write the report,” you can take stock of both realities (internal and external) and respond to the situation more productively. You could respond with, “I am sorry that my report did not meet your expectations. I also want you to know that I worked hard to write this report. What suggestions do you have so that I can improve the report?”
In the same way that a pilot can successfully land a commercial plane on a river, so can we remain in control of a situation and respond effectively to the challenges we face. Sometimes we let our emotions or our assumptions influence our decision making instead of relying on an objective view of reality to make the right landing.