Making a withdrawal from the Bank of Experience

(Last Updated On: September 11, 2016)

Sully, the movie about the Miracle on the Hudson that opened today has so far received pretty good reviews. As you may know, it is about the aircraft that struck a flock of geese at 3,200 feet about 100 seconds after taking off from La Guardia airport near New York City.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger
Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Photo by Ingrid Taylar.

Chesley B. Sullenberger III was the pilot in command. After both engines went silent he said to his First Officer whose turn it was to take off on that flight, “My aircraft”.

Captain Sullenberger, now often called “Sully”, was selected for a cadet glider program while attending the Air Force Academy. By the end of that year he was an instructor pilot. When he graduated in 1973 he received the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship award, as the class “top flyer”. He went on to fly F-4 Phantoms in the Air Force and served as a member of an aircraft accident investigation board in the Air Force. After he became a commercial pilot for US Airways he occasionally assisted the NTSB on accident investigations and taught courses on Crew Resource Management.

When the geese hit the engines January 15, 2009, Sully felt the impact, but more disturbing was the the sensation after the engines quit of slightly moving forward in his harness as the aircraft suddenly went from accelerating to slowing — at low altitude over New York City when they were supposed to be climbing.

US Airways did not have a checklist for the loss of both engines in an Airbus A320 at low altitude. The First Officer, Jeffery Skiles, went through the checklist for restarting the engines, but of course had no success. Sully evaluated their options — returning to La Guardia, diverting to Teterboro airport, or the third choice, a water landing in the Hudson River. Based on his experience, and drawing on his background as a glider pilot, he determined that it was impossible to make it to either airport. He lowered the nose and headed toward the river.

Passing 900 feet above the George Washington Bridge he pointed the aircraft so it would come to rest near a boat he spotted, thinking that it could help pull the passengers out of the very cold water on that winter day. Working with his First Officer, they made the only non-fatal water landing of a large commercial aircraft in recent history.

Airbus Hudson river
US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Photo by Greg L.

As the 150 passengers and four other crew members climbed out onto the wings and waited for rescue by ferry boats, Sully walked through the passenger compartment as it took on water to make sure everyone was off, then grabbed the maintenance log book and was the last one to exit the aircraft.

In a  recent interview Katie Couric conducted with Sully director Clint Eastwood and actors Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart, she recalled something Sully, who at the time had 19,663 flight hours, told her not long after the successful water landing:

For 42 years I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. On January 15 the balance was sufficient so I could make a very large withdrawal.

In the last few decades wildland firefighters have used another name for the “bank of experience”, their “slide file” —  memories of the situations they have been in over the course of their careers, good experiences and bad ones, all of which left data from which they can extrapolate solutions to new situations.

There is of course no substitute for an account balance in a bank of experience or a slide file. You can acquire incremental bits of it from books and training. But you can’t write a check and easily transfer it to someone else, not entirely, anyway. It has to be earned and learned, organically.

And here’s hoping you don’t have to “make a very large withdrawal”, on the ground or in the air.

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