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Friday, February 6, 2009

Flight 1549

I'm taking a break from publishing thoughts today. I wanted to pass on an account of Flight 1549, of which the conversation between the pilot and Control was just released. The calm voices and cool decision making were impressive to listen to. This brief summary of the incident is from Wikipedia:

US Airways Flight 1549 was a commercial passenger flight that ditched in the Hudson (North) River on January 15, 2009 with all 155 on board surviving.

About a minute after its 3:26 pm takeoff from New York City's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) for Charlotte, North Carolina, the Airbus 320 struck a flock of large birds while on climb out resulting in the immediate loss of all thrust from both engines. When the pilots concluded that the aircraft would be unable to reach any airfield, the then-unpowered airliner turned southbound near the George Washington Bridge and at 3:31 pm made a successful intact ditching in the river not far from the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum (North River Pier 86) in midtown Manhattan. All 150 passengers and 5 aircrew safely evacuated the cabin and were rescued from the partially submerged plane by the crews of nearby commercial and rescue watercraft.

The entire crew of Flight 1549 were later awarded the Master's Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. According to the citation for that award, "This emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement."

I received this email yesterday that gives an account of the flight from a passenger, Gerry McNamara. I was unable to verify its origin, but believe there are good lessons here. Here it is:


This is from a Partner at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive recruiting firm, who was on Flight 1549.

Gerry McNamara (New York/Charlotte) was on US Airways Flight 1549 last week. Here is his account of the event:

Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm and I left the Park Avenue office early afternoon to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia Airport.

I was scheduled for a 5pm departure, but able to secure a seat on the earlier flight scheduled to leave at 3PM. As many of us who fly frequently often do, I recall wondering if I'd just placed myself on a flight I shouldn't be on!

Just prior to boarding I finished up a conference call with my associate, Jenn Sparks (New York), and our placement, the CIO of Uni ted Airlines. When I told him that I was about to board a US Airways flight, we all had a little fun with it.

I remember walking on the plane and seeing a fellow with grey hair in the cockpit and thinking "that's a good thing... I like to see grey hair in the cockpit!"

I was seated in 8F, on the starboard side window and next to a young business man. The New York to Charlotte flight is one I've taken what seems like hundreds of times over the years. We take off north over the Bronx and as we climb, turn west over the Hudson River to New Jersey and tack south. I love to fly, always have, and this flight plan gives a great view of several NY landmarks including Yankee Stadium and the George Washington Bridge.

I had started to point out items of interest to the gentleman next tome when we heard a terrible crash - a sound no one ever wants to hear while flying - and then the engines wound down to a screeching halt.10 seconds later, there was a strong smell of jet fuel. I knew we would be landing and thought the pilot would take us down no doubt to Newark Airport. As we began to turn south I noticed the pilot lining up on the river still - I thought - en route for Newark.

Next thing we heard was "Brace for impact!" - a phrase I had heard many years before as an active duty Marine Officer but never before on a commercial air flight. Everyone looked at each other in shock. It all happened so fast we were astonished!

We began to descend rapidly and it started to sink in. This is the last flight. I'm going to die today. This is it. I recited my favorite bible verse, the Lord's Prayer, and asked God to take care of my wife, children, family and friends.

When I raised my head I noticed people texting their friends and family....getting off a last message. My blackberry was turned off and in my trouser time to get at it. Our descent continued and I prayed for courage to control my fear and help if able.

I quickly realized that one of two things was going to happen, neither of them good. We could hit by the nose, flip and break up, leaving few if any survivors, bodies, cold water, fuel. Or we could hit one of the wings and roll and flip with the same result. I tightened my seat belt as tight as I could possibly get it so I would remain intact.

As we came in for the landing, I looked out the windows and remember seeing the buildings in New Jersey, the cliffs in Weehawken, and then the piers. The water was dark green and sure to be freezing cold. The stewardesses were yelling in unison "Brace! Brace! Brace!"

It was a violent hit - the water flew up over my window - but we bobbed up and were all amazed that we remained intact.

There was some panic - people jumping over seats and running towards the doors, but we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down. There were a lot of people that took leadership roles in little ways. Those sitting at the doors over the wing did a fantastic job...they were opened in a New York second! Everyone worked together - teamed up and in groups to figure out how to help each other.

I exited on the starboard side of the plane, 3 or 4 rows behind my seat through a door over the wing and was, I believe, the 10th or 12th person out. I took my seat cushion as a flotation device and once outside saw I was the only one who did....none of us remembered to take the yellow inflatable life vests from under the seat.

We were standing in 6-8 inches of water and it was freezing. There were two women on the wing, one of whom slipped off into the water. Another passenger and I pulled her back on and had her kneel down to keep from falling off again. By that point we were totally soaked and absolutely frozen from the icy wind.

The ferries were the first to arrive, and although they're not made for rescue, they did an incredible job. I know this river, having swum in it as a boy. The Hudson is an estuary - part salt and part fresh water - and moves with the tide. I could tell the tide was moving out because we were tacking slowly south towards Ellis Island, The Statue of Liberty, and The Battery.

The first ferry boat pulled its bow up to the tip of the wing, and the first mate lowered the Jacobs ladder down to us. We got a couple people up the ladder to safety,=2 0but the current was strong pushing the stern of the boat into the inflatable slide and we were afraid it would puncture it...there must have been 25 passengers in it by now. Only two or three were able to board the first ferry before it moved away.

Another ferry came up, and we were able to get the woman that had fallen into the water on the ladder, but she just couldn't move her legs and fell off. Back onto the ladder she went; however, the ferry had to back away because of the swift current. A helicopter arrived on station (nearly blowing us all off the wing) and followed the ferry with the woman on the ladder. We lost view of the situation but I believe the helicopter lowered its basket to rescue her.

As more ferries arrived, we were able to get people up on the boats a few at a time. The fellow in front of me fell off the ladder and into the water. When we got him back on the ladder he could not move his legs to climb. I couldn't help him from my position so I climbed up the ladder to the ferry deck where the first mate and I hoisted the Jacobs ladder with him on it...when he got close enough we grabbed histrouser belt and hauled him on deck. We were all safely off the wing.

We could not stop shaking. Uncontrollable shaking. The only thing I had with me was my blackberry, which had gotten wet and was not working. (It started working again a few hours later).

The ferry took us to the Weehawken Terminal in NJ where I borrowed a phone and called my wife to let her know I was okay. The second call I made was to Jenn. I knew she would be worried about me and could communicate to the rest of the firm that I was fine. At the terminal, first responders assessed everyone's condition and sent people to the hospital as needed. As we pulled out of Weehawken my history kicked in and I recall it was the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Thankfully I left town in better condition than Mr. Hamilton who died of a mortal wound the next day! I stayed with my sister on Long Island that evening, then flew home the
next day.

I am struck by what was truly a miracle. Had this happened a few hours later, it would have been pitch dark and much harder to land. Ferries would no longer have been running after rush hour and it would not have been the same uplifting story. Surely there would have been fatalities, hypothermia, an absolute disaster!

I witnessed the best of humanity that day. I and everyone on that plane survived and have been given a second chance. It struck me that in our work we continuously seek excellence to solve our client's leadership problems. We talk to clients all the time about the importance of experience and the ability to execute. Experience showed up big time on Flight 1549 as our pilot was a dedicated, trained, experienced professional who executed flawlessly when he had to.

I have received scores of emails from across the firm and I am so grateful for the outpouring of interest and concern. We all fly a great deal or work with someone who does and so I wanted to share this story - the story of a miracle. I am thankful to be here to tell the tale.

There is a great deal to be learned including: Why has this happened to me? Why have I survived and what am I supposed to do with this gift? For me, the answers to these questions and more will come over time, but already I find myself being more patient and forgiving, less critical and judgmental.

For now I have 4 lessons I would like to share:

1. Cherish your families as never before and go to great lengths to keep your promises.

2. Be thankful and grateful for everything you have and don't worry about the things you don't have.

3. Keep in shape. You never know when you'll be called upon to save your own life, or help someone else save theirs.

4. When you fly, wear practical clothing. You never know when you'll end up in an emergency or on an icy wing in flip flops and pajamas and of absolutely no use to yourself or anyone else.


Billy Coffey said...

Flight 1549 is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. From the pilot's calm voice to the control tower to people helping one another rather than themselves, it proves that with all the bad in us, there is good as well.

gzusfreek said...

Amy, thanks for this. I don't know why this story touches me so deeply but it does! Thanks you!

Travis said...

Thanks, Amy.
This is a great post!

Andra M. said...

So many things went right that day, it can't all be coincidence.

Thanks for adding the letter at the end. You're right; there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it.

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Isn't it?

Anne L.B. said...

Wow. What an amazing and moving story.

I wholeheartedly agree with advice #1 thru 3. But as for #4, tragedy or crisis can happen anywhere, anytime. Travis may offer a different viewpoint (as a man experienced in emergency response—
and men do get to dress practically), but I'm not willing to quit dressing like a woman wherever I go. This ex-cop/firefighter/EMT is still willing to help in any emergency, and I'd readily kick off the heels or trash my outfit if necessary. I once stopped at the site of an overturned semi on my way home from the office and crawled through broken glass into the cab to assist the driver before EMS was on the scene.

There are plenty of times when a disaster is of such a magnitude that ordinary people must rise to the occasion. More important than the right clothes is a calm and selfless attitude, and recognizing when to offer aid and when to stay the heck out of the way.

(Of course it doesn't hurt to wear comfortable shoes for air travel ...)

Travis said...

Your response to this post is interesting to me on several levels. I'm not sure if I knew you were a former emergency worker, but I suffer from memory loss, which is another story for another time. Your story of entering a cab and assisting the injured is consistent with your character, so I'm not surprised by your revelation.

I appreciate what you said about clothing: comfort verses practical verses fashionable, etc... You poked the sleeping bear with this one. I travel a lot. I see people at the breakfast in hotels that range from posh to economical. I'm always a little angry when I see some woman dressed in her pajamas and bare feet walking around in the lobby, as if we were in HER home. I am offended by that on many levels. I dearly miss the days when women dressed smart and fashionable -- and appropriately. I think the 40s and 50s were the best decades for women's fashion, though I'm sure many would disagree. Perhaps the desire to be comfortable has overridden the desire to be appreciated. I’m not sure.

As for practical--let me tell you, I'm continually after my kids to dress for the environment. If we are going to be outdoors, I insist they wear jeans and proper footwear. Because, and you mentioned something like this, you never know when you may have to face a snake, or a bear, or another person, or another danger that requires you to address that threat properly. Shorts and flip flops in the forest don't allow for strategic escapes!

And I’m grateful to be a man. I wear the same thing. Pants, long sleeve button shirt, and boots. They work on the street, in the pasture, at the fair, and sometimes on the beach!

Aw gee, this isn't my blog, or I'd rant on. Sorry, Amy. Didn't mean to hijack your site, but Anne hit a topic I was interested in responding to!!

Amy Deardon said...

Travis, no, you said this beautifully! Hijack the site all you want :-)

Anne, two words: I'm impressed. Unsuspected depths of people; this is what I love, unearthing details about people that are amazing. Anne, I'd definitely want someone like you to rescue me if I were in an accident :-)

Anne L.B. said...

Amy, you're sweet, but don't hold your breath. I'm just a quiet little homemaker now. ;) I used to request the seat next to the emergency exit, but airlines started charging a premium for it, so I don't even do that anymore.

Travis, as I recall from being born and raised in Colorado, the right western boots also look good with a tux.

Oops! I'm assisting the hijacker.