Trucks at Work

Flight 1549: Lessons for trucking from a near-aviation disaster

Most everyone knows the story about a 2009 plane crash known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Here’s the short version: U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport in New York City one clear but cold January morning nearly six years ago and promptly ran into a flock of geese at an altitude of 3,000 feet, causing what's known in aviation as a “bird strike.”

Several geese got sucked into Flight 1549’s jet engines, knocking one out completely and rendering the second almost completely useless.

Yet in less than four minutes, Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles safely landed the plane in the Hudson River, with all the passengers – some 155 people – and crew rescued before it sank in the frigid water.

By most measures, that’s the equivalent of a miracle – a plane suddenly bereft of engine power glides to a safe landing in an open river, with all passengers and crew rescued largely unscathed; indeed, only one passenger had to stay overnight in the hospital.

Yet Skiles (at right), who spoke about his experience in the cockpit of Flight 1549 that January day during a presentation at the American Trucking Associations (ATA) Management Conference & Exhibition (MC&E) last week, argued that the successful ditching of Flight 1549 wasn’t a “miracle” at all but rather the result of great training mixed with some very good luck.

“The term ‘miracle’ is used to describe things we cannot understand,” Skiles explained during his talk. “Now, we certainly had one thousand moments of good luck for every piece of bad luck: a calm river with no boats; a plane full of largely ‘commuter’ passengers, with no children and only one senior citizen aboard; and quick rescue from the frigid water before the plane sank.”

Yet Skiles largely credits what he called a “revolution” in aviation culture that began in the early 1990s for the successful ditching of Flight 1549: a “revolution” that focused intently on pilot training.

“In flying, small mistakes lead to major problems,” he noted. “Accidents are caused by a chain of small errors that line up to cause a crash. So to stop the crash, you need to break that chain – and that’s what training is all about.”

It’s also why he thinks aviation’s “culture change” offers trucking some lessons, largely because driver error remains the leading cause of crashes among cars and trucks alike.

Skiles added that prior to the 1990s, improvements to aviation safety focused solely on technology: better autopilot systems, better navigation technology, etc.

“We focused on the machine, not the man,” Skiles said. “Yet while a machine can take over and complete physical tasks faster and more accurately, it is not capable of strategic thought.”

Thus to attack the issue of “pilot error” required the aviation community to make a fresh start on improving not just pilot skills but how people and machines interact with one another.

That also meant taking a new view of “mistakes,” he said. “We now use mistakes to get better,” Skiles explained. “We self-report errors, which leads to new training procedures and protocols. Thus, change and adaptation becomes a constant.”

What has this new “culture” created for aviation? Skiles noted that, prior to 1990, U.S. Airways alone (which by the way is now part of American Airlines) suffered five fatal airline crashes in five years.

Yet as of today, the major airlines – the big carriers such as American, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, etc. – haven’t suffered a fatal crash in 14 years. “We’ve done that by controlling quality through a focus on processes, then constantly evaluating those processes to keep improving quality,” he noted.

Yet what does that mean in practice, and what can the trucking industry learn from it? Skiles noted that he and Captain Sullenberger has only met for the first time three days prior to the Flight 1549 ditching; they’d never worked together before, which isn’t uncommon among major airlines. “We had 5,000 pilots at U.S. Airways alone,” Skiles pointed out.

That’s why having standard protocols – even down the specific words used in professional exchanges – allowed Skiles and Sullenberger to work as a closely knit team even though they were personally unfamiliar with each other.

“We both knew exactly what we needed to do even though we’d only met three days prior to the incident,” Skiles said. “We had a set way of talking that negated the need for involved speech or even eye contact.”

From a technological perspective, use of autopilot and new navigation systems also reduces the workload on pilots to allow them to focus on more important safety measures.

“Technology now allows us to focus more intently on the checklists; two sets of eyes and two brains going over the vital systems,” Skiles explained. “Also, pilots no longer fly aircraft; crews do. We pass or fail our check rides as a team and that requires us to interact with each other as a single unit.”

He added that turning on the autopilot doesn’t turn aircraft crew into “seated observers” either.

“For example, take the 11 hour flight from the U.S. to Tel Aviv [in Israel]. Every 10 degrees you need to make a course correction; it’s never a straight line, especially with other planes in the air,” Skiles noted. “That keeps alertness high, where it should be.”

We’ll delve into more of Flight 1549’s lessons for trucking in tomorrow’s post, with the commentary of several trucking executives added into the mix.

 

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