Guest Editor – Aviation writer and photographer Jay Selman has joined our staff.
Training, Teamwork, and Experience
When Flight 1549 ended up in the Hudson River last year, and all 155 souls onboard escaped with their lives, the media and public around the world went wild with excitement. The incident was immediately and forever referred to at “The Miracle on the Hudson”, and the flight crewmembers were instant heroes and celebrities. The accolades were well-deserved, since their actions as trained professionals did save the lives of everybody on board the Airbus A320. For a brief moment, the media got it right, and talked about what went RIGHT during an emergency that could have easily cost the lives of an entire planeload of passengers and crewmembers. Everyone likes a “feel-good story”, and this was probably the story of the decade. For weeks afterward, the flight crew was subjected to a media blitz unlike anything that we in the airline industry have ever seen. Television, magazines, the Presidential Inauguration, the Super Bowl…you name it. Their names were everywhere, and the public loved it. The crewmembers did their best to focus on the real issues that led to a successful conclusion to “The Miracle on the Hudson”, Training, Teamwork, and Experience. But as I watched the media circus that ensued, it seemed to me that the message they were trying to send was largely lost in the hype of the moment.
The aviation industry enjoys an extremely enviable safety record. Thousands of flights every day are entirely routine, when the biggest problem is a piece of missing or damaged luggage. Every once in awhile, however, a flight isn’t quite so routine. Something goes wrong. It could be a mechanical failure, or an issue with an ill or disruptive passenger. Suddenly, varying degrees of training, teamwork, experience, and yes, luck come into play, and contribute to the outcome. We almost never hear about the successful outcomes, and term “unsung heroes” certainly applies to most of these situations.
Some 2 ½ years before the Airbus ended up in the Hudson, I had a front-row seat to another close call, one that could also have easily ended with bold headlines across the top of every newspaper in the country. It happened at my airport, while I was on duty. A 737 blew a tire on landing, and skidded down the runway, flames licking at the undercarriage. Over 100 passengers and five crewmembers evacuated the Boeing on the runway without sustaining a single injury! It seemed like a miracle.
The passengers and crew were taken to an auditorium in the airport for a debriefing. As I made my way to the room, I passed dozens of news people, cameras poised, waiting to interview the passengers who had “cheated death.” I had the privilege of sitting in on the debriefing of the flight crew by the FAA. As I listened to their accounts of the incident, it hit me hard that this was not a miracle at all, but a set of circumstances where everything that could go right, did.
The “series of fortunate events” began with training, combined with excellent instincts based on years of experience. Maybe the two go hand in hand. Due to prevailing conditions onboard the aircraft, the pilots requested to land on the longest runway. After all, one of the most useless things to a pilot is unused runway. The tower controller even questioned the captain as to his choice of runways, since it is the least convenient to the terminal. As it turned out, this decision was wise for many reasons. As the plane touched down, the main gear tires burst, leaving the aircraft to continue down the runway on the rims, which friction quickly set ablaze. Years of training allowed the pilots to assess the situation in a matter of seconds, and maintain complete control of the aircraft, which came to a stop with its nose wheel dead on the centerline. Realizing that heavy smoke was coming from underneath the plane, the captain ordered an evacuation. Here was where the flight attendants’ training (and instincts) kicked in. As they do many times in training, they opened the doors, deployed the escape slides, and calmly and professionally assisted in evacuating the plane.
Here was another fortunate coincidence. One of the airport fire trucks just happened to be out by this runway, and was in the right place at the right time when the Boeing skidded to a halt. (Don’t forget the pilots’ decision to request this particular runway!) Recognizing the emergency, these highly-trained specialists raced a short distance to where the plane sat and immediately moved to extinguish the fire that was still burning underneath the wing (and fuel tank). A couple of the rescue team members were also available to hold the escape slides during the evacuation. I am certain that this action contributed to the lack of injuries during the evacuation.
While I can only imagine that this was an extremely upsetting experience for passengers and crew, the bottom line is that everyone walked away no worse for wear and with some mighty interesting stories for the folks back home. After it was all over, I had a chance to start digesting all that had happened. I grew extremely proud of these, and all, airline crewmembers. They spend many hours each year studying, training, and practicing skills they hope they will never have to use. (I thought briefly of a bumper sticker I saw years ago. “Flight Attendants are here to save your a–, not to kiss it!”) As I walked out of the debriefing with the crew, long after the passengers had left the auditorium, I was struck by one more fact. Not a single newsperson was waiting to interview the aviation professionals whose years of training, teamwork, and experience contributed to a happy ending. Unlike the “Miracle on the Hudson”, this incident received no media attention outside of the local press. Yet these crewmembers performed their jobs with equal professionalism, just as they had been trained for. Even more important, it is entirely likely that the lessons learned from the lesser-known incident might have been incorporated into training that helped better prepare the “Miracle crew” for their moment of truth, just as lessons learned from their experience have been incorporated into today’s airline crew training. The process is never-ending, and hopefully, will contribute to your next safe flight.