PARK CITY — Retired Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger on Thursday praised the teamwork and ability of his flight crew to adapt to an emergency as he shared the story of the 2009 crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River.
When he had to make an emergency landing into the river, Sullenberger realized that a lifetime of training and decisions, as well as team-building efforts with his crew, had become a vital part of ensuring the survival of his passengers, he said.
As he spoke during O.C. Tanner's Influence Greatness employee recognition and culture conference at Snowbird's Cliff Lodge, Sullenberger expressed a regret that he had become the face of the "Miracle on the Hudson," knowing how vital his flight crew's teamwork and professionalism had been to the successful emergency landing.
"You can probably only imagine, having gone through such a traumatic event together, we've become very close," Sullenberger said of his crew, singling out co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, who was in the cockpit as Sullenberger landed the plane.
Sullenberger and his crew had met just three days before teaming up for a four-day flight schedule, he said. The pilot attributed much of the crew's success to a change in the airline's "cockpit culture."
Sullenberger had been flying commercial airlines since 1980 and was an airline safety advocate. He had wanted to move away from an internal culture where pilots were "solo acts" who did not offer good leadership, he said.
Ultimately, Sullenberger was instrumental in developing and teaching leadership courses for US Airways.
"We would teach them how to take a collection of strangers and make an effective team," he said. "We would take a team of experts and make an expert team."
The course focused mostly on communication — getting all members of the crew talking to each other and sharing information. Sullenberger said he wanted his flight attendants to be comfortable telling him any information and not assume that he knew everything from the captain's seat at the nose of the plane.
When trying to distill his method of creating an expert team from people he had only just met, Sullenberger recalled the simple steps for quickly uniting a team.
“When you first meet a crew, set the tone, align your goals and give them a vision of an immediate future,” he said.
Sullenberger described the method as "making a compact" that flight crews would share in the responsibility of each other's safety.
That change in "cockpit culture" was key when a flock of Canada geese struck his plane's engines and Sullenberger made the announcement that the plane would be crash landing in the Hudson River.
It only took a few words on the plane's public address system — “brace for impact” — and his crew immediately prepared passengers for the hard water landing, he said.
Crew members then began shouting the repeated instructions, "brace, brace, brace, heads down, stay down," Sullenberger said.
In the cockpit, Sullenberger and Skiles were able to conduct much of their work without saying a word, simply understanding what the other was doing and completing their own responsibilities.
When Skiles did speak, Sullenberger said his co-pilot helped reaffirm the decision-making.
Sullenberger said he knew he would need to lift the nose of the plane at just the right moment to slow the descent of the plane. Skiles helped by calling out the plane's speed and altitude, allowing Sullenberger to land the plane with surprisingly little impact.
As the plane evacuated, there was some pushing and shoving among the passengers, Sullenberger said, but people were able to get out with relative ease before he and his crew deplaned.
Sullenberger took a moment to acknowledge the crews of the N.Y. Waterway ferries who raced out to meet the plane when they saw it closing in over the river. The first boats reached the plane within four minutes of its emergency landing, he said, and as a result, all passengers and crew were saved.