What the 'Miracle on the Hudson' Teaches Us About Disaster Planning
US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City on Jan. 15, 2009, headed to Charlotte, N.C. Three minutes into the flight, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese which resulted in an immediate and complete loss of both engines. At a mere 3,000 feet, the crew of the aircraft quickly determined they would be unable to reach any airfield so they turned to glide over the Hudson. What happened in the next four minutes determined the fate of the 155 individuals on board.
Immediately after losing both engines, Capt. Sully Sullenberger began considering his options: turn back to LaGuardia, find a nearby airport, or crash land somewhere over Manhattan. While he was speaking with air traffic control, his co-pilot pulled out their flight manual (aka their extensive Disaster Recovery Plan which was hundreds of pages), found the 10-page procedure to follow when both engines fail and began frantically working his way down the checklist to re-start the engines.
After a quick assessment Captain Sullenberger determined that an airport landing was going to be impossible under the circumstances. The nervous air traffic controller kept relaying options at all available airports within a 10-mile radius, but nothing was close enough. While trying to suppress his adrenaline, emotions and fear, Captain Sullenberger fell back to his countless hours as a glider pilot in order to stay in control of the plane. Two minutes after the collision and two minutes from impact, Sullenberger spotted his destination and calmly told the air traffic controller "we’re going to be in the Hudson."
The co-pilot continued his relentless efforts to restart the engines without success. As the plane hovered just a couple hundred feet above the Hudson, the captain instructed the crew and passengers to prepare for an emergency landing by declaring "brace for impact!" – the first words uttered to the passengers and crew since takeoff.
Seconds later the plane skipped across the Hudson and cheers rang out when the plane safely came to a stop after impacting the water at over 150 mph. However, the moments of relief were quickly drowned out by water pouring in the back of the aircraft as the plane began to sink. In less than 25 minutes, the plane would be at the bottom of the Hudson which was a chilly 38 degrees.
As you know, all 155 people escaped death that day by finding safety in nearby ferry boats that came to their aid within minutes; however you may not know why this plane, which was designed to stay afloat, sank so quickly. Turns out there is a "ditching" button above the co-pilot’s chair which seals the aircraft and prevents it from sinking. So why didn’t the crew press this all important button?
Perhaps it was their inexperience with this situation, the lack of time, or the overwhelming emotions … but I believe it was simply that their plan wasn’t designed for that specific situation.
You see their 10-page procedure for restarting the engines was written to be followed when an aircraft was at 30,000 feet and had almost half an hour of flying time before impact. Their plane was at 3,000 feet and had four minutes before crashing so they simply didn’t’ have time to read the last paragraph on the last page which tells them to press a small, little button that would’ve kept the plane from sinking.
In spite of the failed plan, this incredible event could not be described as anything but a success. In fact, the entire crew of Flight 1549 was awarded the Master's Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, and many have described their experience as "the most successful ditching in aviation history."
However, the reason I believe this is such a herald story is because of the countless hours of experience that Captain Sullenberger had in flying planes without engines. When they were in a grave situation, he was in a familiar place, and simply acted as he was trained.
As a senior continuity planner, I have found that a lot of organizations and individuals put a heavy emphasis on the plan. My recommendation is that your focus not be so much about the plan, but instead about the recovery and how you can prepare for one.
Because of the nature of an emergency which is a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence requiring immediate action, it is highly unlikely that the event will unfold the way you or I are planning for it to.
I think the Army said it best when describing how to immediately respond to an emergency: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." To get started with your planning simply start talking. Schedule a meeting with team members that could play a hands-on role with recovery and begin to understand the different assumptions people have made about what to do and find common ground. Focus on the various ways you could handle an emergency beginning with your communications. Make sure you have a few ways to communicate among yourselves, to your employees, and to key vendors and clients.
Know that when disasters strike, time is running out, and the actions you take in those critical moments will define the future of your organization. The biggest observation I have seen over my company’s 23 years and 1,000 rescues is that the most successful actions taken during a disaster aren’t found on a page, but instead in someone’s trained ability to respond.
By the way, if you and I were on Flight 1549 and started reading this story immediately after losing both engines, the captain would be coming on over the intercom right now instructing us to "brace for impact!" Are you ready?