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The Miracle on the Hudson: A Risk Thinking Example

Posted in on
March 30, 2021

Author: Ron Dembo

On a frosty afternoon in January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 prepared to depart from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. The captain and pilot-in-command of the Airbus that afternoon was Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, a 57-year-old, silver-haired former fighter pilot of the US Air Force Academy with a total of 19,663 flight hours under his belt. He was, to put it mildly, highly experienced. He was practiced, prepared, and fully competent (indeed, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg later dubbed him “Captain Cool”).[1]

The Ascent

Cleared for takeoff from LaGuardia’s Runway 4 at 15:24 EST, the crew ensured all passengers were secured in their seats and the Airbus took to the skies. “What a view of the Hudson today,” remarked Sully to his co-pilot, looking through the broken clouds as they passed over the Bronx.[2]

The plane continued its ascent.

Then, in just the third minute of the flight, disaster struck. A flock of Canada geese crossed the plane’s path. In an instant the pilots’ view was completely obscured, and then there was an enormous, gut-wrenching bang followed by silence.

The smell of burning birds followed. And then the odor of fuel hit the pilots and passengers.

In the cabin, which was filled now with a smoky haze, Sully realized almost immediately what had happened. Both engines were conked out, the plane had zero thrust. Quickly, the captain took the control from his co-pilot who worked the checklist for engine restart – a trained response that could have provided a crucial upside. As it was, the aircraft slowed, continuing to climb for a moment before, at about 3,060 feet, it began a glide descent, accelerating rapidly to 213mph.

Mayday

Sully radioed a mayday to New York Terminal Radar Approach Control: “this is Cactus 1539 [sic. – correct sign was Cactus 1549], hit birds. We’ve lost thrust on both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.”

Intuitively, Sully rattled through the various scenarios in his head: turn back to LaGuardia – no, it was too risky, he thought. There were too many people on the ground.

Responding to the mayday, air traffic control halted all departures at LaGuardia and directed Sully to return to Runway 13.

“Unable,” was the terse, focused response from the captain. He asked for more options. Perhaps the nearby airport of Teterboro – that was no good either, it was too far, and they might not make it. He had never flown there before so didn’t know the layout of the airport. And it would mean flying over the densely populated northern New Jersey.

“We can’t do it,” he said. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

Prepare for Crash Landing

Sully had intuitively mapped the scenarios and made the choice. He was directing the plane to the only near enough strip of open expanse: the river. In doing so, he minimized the downside risks of crashlanding into a crowded city, yet he took on the risk of an unpowered water landing and the possibility that the plane would be swiftly submerged.

But Sully knew his bets.

Pitching sharply, the aircraft turned and passed just 900 feet above the George Washington Bridge. “Brace for impact”, Sully commanded over the cabin address system.

The plane swept down low and made an unpowered ditching, descending at 140mph into the middle of the North River section of the tidal estuary. The flight attendants, remembering it later, said it was like a “hard landing” with “one impact, no bounce, and then a gradual deceleration.”[3] Even then, in choosing the position of the landing in the river, Sully’s experience had brought gains: he had chosen a route well-travelled by vessels, ensuring that rescue boats were there within minutes to assist.

All 155 people on board were saved,. The manoeuvre would later become known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”, and Sully would be venerated as a hero. It was, one National Transportation Safety Board official said, “the most successful ditching in aviation history.”[4]

Can We Learn From Sully?

Sully’s moves were those of a risk thinker facing extreme uncertainty. Despite all the safety precautions (the hedges against downside risks) and all the predictions and plans for the flight path, an extreme event had upended everything, forcing the captain to make on-the-fly decisions that weighed up risks and intuitively calculated his and his passengers’ odds of survival. “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 said. “And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”[5]


[1] Goldenberg, Sally (February 10, 2009). “Key for Captain Marvel”. New York Post. Archived from the original on April 18, 2009. Retrieved February 18, 2009.

[2] “NTSB Report US Airways Flight 1549 Water Landing Hudson River January 15, 2009” (PDF). The New York Times.

[3]https://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_wires/2009Jan17/0,4675,PlaneSplashdown,00.html

[4] Olshan, Jeremy; Livingston, Ikumulisa (January 17, 2009). “Quiet Air Hero Is Captain America”. New York Post. Retrieved February 12, 2009.

[5] Newcott, Bill (May–June 2009). “Wisdom of the Elders”. AARP Magazine. 347: 52. Bibcode:2015Sci…347.1110V.

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