What Adrenaline Does to a Pilot

A few more thoughts on the details emerging from the crash of US Air 1549 into the Hudson. I was struck by Capt. Sully’s comment about the way he felt when he realized he had lost both engines. He said this to Katie Couric the other day:

“The physiological reaction I had to this was strong, and I had to force myself to use my training and force calm on the situation.”

He didn’t go into detail about the physical symptoms, but we know from research into the brain in high stress environments what he probably experienced:

If Sully responded like most people, his blood pressure and his heart rate shot up. He instantly ingested a surge of hormones as powerful as hallucinogenic drugs—in particular, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones gave his gross-motor muscles a bionic boost—which would be helpful if he needed to fight or flee, but less helpful for what he was actually experiencing. Stress hormones interfere with the brain’s ability to process new information and make decisions—to think, in other words.

Sully was almost certainly experiencing sensory distortions as well. Under stress, we lose peripheral vision and our notions of time and space can warp dramatically. In one study of shootings of civilians by police officers, 94% of officers experienced at least one distortion, according to criminologist David Klinger’s interviews with the officers involved. Their vision became worse—or better. Some lost track of time; others suddenly lost their hearing. Most reported feeling oddly detached from what was happening—a fascinating phenomenon common in all kinds of trauma, known to psychologists as dissociation.

How did Sully overcome the acid trip that comes with extreme stress? How did he manage to calmly radio in that he wanted to land in LaGuardia, then New Jersey and then, no, after all, in the Hudson River? How did he have the wherewithal to warn passengers—90 seconds before impact—to get in the brace position? Had he not done that, the flight attendants may have had no warning—and we know from past crashes that without clear, aggressive commands, the passengers would have moved much more slowly.

Sully overcame the distortions of extreme fear because he was well-trained, and he was confident in his ability to perform. He could tamp down the internal ruckus more quickly than most. When Couric asked him if it was hard to gain focus, he said, simply: “No, it just took some concentration.” Gotta love this guy.