Amanda Ripley

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“I was Sure I Could Do It”

9th Feb 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

Last night, Capt. “Sully” explained to Katie Couric what it felt like to ditch US Airways 1549 in the Hudson River. It was remarkable TV, especially since 60 Minutes also talked to the crew (who have gotten far too little attention so far) and shot footage of a strange and joyful reunion between the crew and the passengers.

I was, first of all, struck by the familiarity of Capt. Sully’s all-business description of his initial reaction when both engines failed. In so many words, this is something I have heard again and again from survivors of every kind of disaster.

“My initial reaction was one of disbelief. ‘I can’t believe this is happening. This doesn’t happen to me.’... I had this expectation that my career would be one in which I wouldn’t crash an airplane.”

It’s a perfectly understandable reaction, especially as articulated in that last line. But it’s important to expect this disbelief—not panic or hysteria—if we are to plan for emergencies in any meaningful way. In Capt. Sully’s case, his training kicked in very quickly and he lost no time in this phase of disbelief. But for some people, this phase never ends.

The second thing that resonated with me was the reassurance that Capt. Sully felt when he heard the flight attendants responding to his announcement (90 seconds before impact) to “brace for impact.”

I made the brace for impact ann in the cabin, and immediately, through the hardened cockpit door, I heard the flight attendants begin shouting their commands in response to my command to brace: heads down, stay down, I could hear them clearly and they were chanting it in unison over and over again to warn them, to instruct them, and I felt very comforted by that. I knew immediately that they were on the same page. That if I could land the airplane, that they could get them out safely.

“I made the ‘brace for impact’ announcement in the cabin, and immediately, through the hardened cockpit door, I heard the flight attendants begin shouting their commands in response to my command to brace: ‘Heads down. Stay down.’ I could hear them clearly, and they were chanting it in unison over and over again to warn them, to instruct them, and I felt very comforted by that. I knew immediately that they were on the same page. That if I could land the airplane, that they could get them out safely.”

Interestingly, a flight attendant also told Couric that the passengers had not panicked. In fact, when the crew shouted for the passengers to “brace,” some of them did not do so. They were looking out the window, trying to figure out what was going on. Again, a perfectly reasonable reaction—especially since very few people know what “brace for impact” means. Although it is what the crew is supposed to say, it is a phrase that is most useful to people who have trained for crash landings.

Regular people, especially frightened regular people, are not likely to instantly react to such an unusual request. I’ve long thought that the airlines should change this phrasing to something we all understand. Something like, “Put your head between your knees.” Of course, that’s a bit on the long side, I realize… Suggestions welcome.

According to one flight attendant, some people were even making calls on their cell phones.

More on the 60 Minutes report coming soon…