Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cockpit Cool

This past week perhaps the most famous airline pilot ever returned to the cockpit. Chesley "Sulley" Sullenberger, who steered crippled U.S. Airways flight 1549 to a soft landing in New York's Hudson River back in January, has returned to flying. His first introduction over the in-cabin audio system brought cheers from the passengers.

It has always amazed me the cool with which airline pilots and air traffic controllers calmly dialogue under breath taking pressure to find solutions whenever a plane is in trouble. Even when the ending is tragic they remain calm and professional up to the end.

Sullenberger's cool was masterful. Where most of us panic in the face of misplacing our wallet or other such mundane calamities, Sullenberger, responsible for the lives of passengers, crew, people on the ground in the plane's path and a multi-million dollar airplane itself, calmly reports that a flock of birds has killed both engines and then methodically queries air traffic control for a place to safely land. When none can be reached, he matter-of-factly says "We're going to be in the Hudson" as though he were telling his wife "I'm taking the dog for a walk."

You can hear short audio of the flight voice recorder here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSPsrhCPt-0

It has been a personal study of mine over the years to understand how people respond with such courage when facing daunting dangers. Perhaps my fascination with this is fueled by my own failures of nerve under pressures far less imposing. Such grace under fire is inspiring to me and seems other worldly.

Yet gradually over a lifetime I have seen slow progress. Situations that would have produced spasms of anxiety, frustration or anger in the past no longer nettle me or at least I am able to slap down the fear when it threatens. Though I have sought to draw strength under pressure from my faith, I find now the temperance to respond coolly to challenges grows mostly with experience. Facing pressures over a lifetime leads to increased capacity to manage them with grace. As with Capt. Sullenberger and his professional kin, it comes down to training. I am still fully capable of degenerating into hand wringing left to my natural tendencies. It is the training that has come with years of experience that has given me this measure of success.

Pilots spend many hours in flight simulators not only learning the intricacies of routine flight but also how to handle emergencies. They spend hours in the air training and many hours of continuing education. Such cool under fire does not spring spontaneously from men and women of preternatural courage. Rather, coolness under fire is the child of preparation and training.

Sullenberger himself attributes his handling of the crisis to experience. From the Wikipedia article on him:

In a CBS 60 Minutes interview, he was quoted as saying that the moments before the crash were "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling" that he had ever experienced.[34] Speaking with news anchor Katie Couric, Sullenberger said, "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. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."[35]

Notice that he felt the fear, the twisting in his gut that disaster loomed. But his years of training kept him under control. And when you hear his voice on the recording, there is no hint of the anxiety within.

It is in the daily challenges, threatening situations, tough decisions, even failures, that preparation for bigger obstacles is forged. I can be more under reserve in some situations now because the past has been my "flight simulator" as it were.

Christ said that the storm comes against everyone's house and the one properly founded on His teachings is the one that stands. True enough. Yet I would add that every storm brings opportunity for the owner to discover new areas that need reinforcement, more shoring up, more bracing, bringing growing confidence for the bigger storms that may one day come.

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