A Project Management Lesson from the Miraculous Outcome of Flight 1549

Everyone was captivated by the outcome of US Airways Flight 1549.  How was it possible to crash land on the Hudson River in frigid weather, evacuate passengers and crew from the aircraft, and then ferry everyone to safety?  And all of this without a single fatality!

Governor Patterson called it the “Miracle-on-the-Hudson.”

Just minutes before, at 3:26 PM on January, 15, 2009, the plane had departed from La Guardia Airport.   Then, at 3:29, three minutes into the flight, and at an altitude of 3,200 feet, the plane hit a flock of birds crippling both engines.  The pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, immediately reported a “double bird strike.”

What followed was a drama that compressed a critical decision process to seconds.

Decisions like this, or indeed any personal or project management decision, involve several steps including the collection of data, the identification of alternatives, assessment of risks, the selection of the most appropriate alternative, and the execution of the steps necessary to succeed in reaching the goal. But in most situations, decision makers have time before they move from one decision step to the next.

Not the case here.

Once it was determined that both engines had failed, there were only three alternatives from which to choose. In the first they would reverse course and head back to LaGuardia Airport. In the second, and the alternative recommended by Air Traffic Control, they would land at Teterboro Airport.  In the third they would land on the nearby Hudson River.

With the aircraft losing altitude, the chances of making it safely back to La Guardia or to Teterboro were small.  Sullenberger, then made a split second decision; returning to La Guardia or reaching Teterboro in New Jersey was out. They were too far away. He would have to ditch in the Hudson River.

But the risks of landing on the river were considerable. Could the plane find and glide to a safe landing spot? Would the fuselage remain intact upon impact? Would the aircraft sink in the 36 degree water before rescue boats could reach stranded passengers? And could it even clear the George Washington Bridge?

In that instant of time Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles turned south and prepared for a landing.

Useful clauses Gypsum cardboard Decorative furnish
In On Wisconsin, a University of Wisconsin Alumni Magazine, Jeff Skiles, recounted the experience. People have asked me if I was scared. I think people are scared of things they don’t know and don’t understand. A Pilot, in general, is not in this situation. There’s things you have to do, and that helps you get through the shock. The training procedures are almost like a choreographed dance. You learn it and then you do it.

While a miracle might have occurred, and while good luck was certainly instrumental in the landing and rescue effort, most agree that the critical factor here was skill.  From pilot to crew and to rescue personnel, the operation was an example of how training pays off.

Everyone had been trained. Not just one training session, but a series of sessions that developed and reinforced the skills necessary in such situations. Pilots flew simulators practicing emergency procedures, flight attendants attended sessions emphasizing emergency evacuations, and ferry captains regularly drilled their crew on emergency procedures. Indeed the kind of performance that occurred on the Hudson River was the result of extensive and continual training.

In project management there are two levels of training. The first addresses the knowledge and skills that project managers must acquire to effectively plan, execute and control a project. The second level involves the training of those who will use the outcome of the finished project.

The problem is that both levels of training take time and in many projects there is considerable pressure to get started, not ‘waste’ time, and move on to the next project before implementation is complete.

Even when training is scheduled it may not be given the attention it deserves because those attending find it boring.  Yes they listen, but there is no urgency to pay close attention and internalize the message.   Perhaps this explains why most of us tune out when flight attendants review emergency procedures before a flight. We don’t expect to use the information and therefore find it irrelevant (the last US airline fatality was over two years ago).

Indeed, we all know that a single training session - where we bring in a charismatic speaker with an inspirational message – seldom has a lasting effect.  To be productive, training must be targeted and constantly reinforced.  Only through repetition can we transform what we “should” do to what we are actually capable of doing.  We must be able to draw on those lessons and apply them in a “Blink” of the eye as did the crew on flight 1549.
Although training is not optional for airline crews, it is optional in most of our organizations. But it may be just as necessary to develop effective training strategies for an ERP implementation as it is for United Airlines to train crews on emergency procedures.  Indeed, effective training can be instrumental in developing a shared purpose, learning new skills, reinforcing the importance of established methods and procedures, and helping to create a productive project management culture.
Granted, that the neglect of airline safety training can have life or death consequences, but this difference can’t leave our organizations off-the-hook completely. Especially since we allocate considerable sums to project management training, and especially since many projects fail to achieve their goals.

As we have been reminded by the miraculous outcome on the Hudson River, training is serious business. Leaving it to chance or abandoning training because there is not enough time, because people claim to be bored, or because funds are limited, may miss an opportunity to achieve better project outcomes.