Fallston Group

Building Strengthening & Defending reputations

Crisis Leadership: National Preparedness Month

On the cold afternoon of January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger nosed US Airways Flight 1549 into the clear skies above New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Less than four minutes later, after a “bird strike” from a flock of Canadian geese knocked out two of the jet’s engines, he coolly and skillfully made an emergency landing in the frigid Hudson River that saved the lives of all 150 passengers and five crew members, earning him international acclaim and admiration.

“Within eight seconds of the bird strike,” Sullenberger wrote in his book “Highest Duty,” “realizing that we were without engines, I knew this was the worst aviation challenge I’d ever faced. It was the most sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I had ever experienced.”

As the nation marks National Preparedness Month, it’s instructive to look back at some of the ways in which Capt. Sullenberger was equipped to deal with one of the most compelling dramas in modern airline history.

“My life is all about routine. It’s about checklists and procedures,” he would say in a training video for Dupont not long after his ordeal. “Be prepared for the unexpected by doing the little things day in and day out. You ready yourself for the big things…”

Immediately after Flight 1549’s engines failed, Capt. Sullenberger took over the controls of the crippled aircraft from First Officer Jeff Skiles, who began handling the emergency check-list.

Sullenberger’s training quickly kicked in.

He focused on the three general rules of any aircraft emergency: maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation and take proper action, land as soon as conditions permit.

Also helping him was this: as a young pilot in the Air Force, he had studied aircraft accidents to learn from the experiences of the pilots involved. “Why did pilots wait too long before ejecting from planes that were about to crash?” he wrote in “Highest Duty.” “Why did they spend extra seconds trying to fix the unfixable?”

Sullenberger’s many flights from LaGuardia in the past had also given him an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain he was flying over, as well as the distances to the nearest airports should he attempt an emergency landing at one.

In the end, his training, military experience and geographical knowledge would help him conclude that all four nearby airports (LaGuardia, JFK, Teterboro and Newark) were unreachable by the damaged aircraft.

“We may end up in the Hudson,” he told air traffic control in a remarkably calm voice.

In fact, the aircraft was already descending below the tops of Manhattan’s skyscrapers toward the wide, sparkling river.

Too busy in the early moments of the emergency to fill in the passengers on what was happening, he now intoned: “This is the captain. Brace for impact!”

Attempting to control the aircraft without critical engine thrust, he nevertheless guided it to a hard, slightly nose-up landing. After that, he supervised the emergency evacuation of shivering passengers out onto the wings of the sinking plane, where they were quickly helped into a flotilla of rescue boats.

Perhaps as much as any pilot in history, “Sully” Sullenberger had proven to be prepared for the ultimate crisis of his career.

“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,” he concluded during a “60 Minutes” interview with Katie Couric after his Flight 1549 heroics. “And on Jan. 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

So, what are you doing now to build your long-term reputational equity? Do you have a plan and are you training to standard to create organizational muscle memory? How are you and your organization going to handle a natural or human caused crisis should one occur?

Remember, the leadership decisions you make today will be judged by many for years to come. September is National Preparedness Month. To learn more about organizational preparedness and building reputational equity, contact Fallston Group at 410.420.2001 or by email at info@FallstonGroup.com.


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