The secret to great teamwork

The Secret to Great Teamwork

Preparation – Procedures – Training

By Willy Jolley

Do you remember where you were when you heard about US Airways Flight #1549 crash landing in the Hudson River? It was January 15, 2009. It has since been called the "Miracle on the Hudson," and rightfully so.

I recently had an opportunity to hear Flight 1549 First Officer Jeff Skiles speak. I later sat down with him to learn a little more about him, his training and his views on teamwork.

Most people recognize Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger’s name today, yet few know it was Jeff Skiles at the controls when Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia that afternoon. Jeff was still manning the controls when the bird strike occurred just two minutes after takeoff. After striking the birds and telling the captain what had happened, Sully said, "My aircraft!" Jeff followed with the statement, "Your aircraft!" At that moment, they both knew their individual responsibilities and what they had to do to get that airplane back on the ground (or water) safely.

You may find it even more interesting to learn that Jeff and Sully met just three days earlier, and this was the last leg of their time together. So how were these two pilots able to bring the aircraft to a successful landing on the Hudson River after three days and just a few flights together?

Jeff attributes these three factors:

  1. 1. He had just finished his certification training in this aircraft
  2. 2. Sully had extensive experience in this aircraft, as well as glider training
  3. 3. Both pilots knew their job responsibilities and followed proper procedures

Jeff had just completed his certification training on the flight simulator two weeks earlier. One of the circumstances he practiced was an engine failure and a water landing. This gave him a recent recollection of what needed to be done. Training is a constant in the airline industry and it proved invaluable. Jeff knew to follow the checklist written by Airbus (the aircraft manufacturer); therefore, he had no choice but to quickly scan the 100-page manual searching for the exact location that referenced water landings. He did so in only 20 seconds.

Keep in mind, this checklist was written for a water landing with engine failure over an ocean occurring at 30,000 feet and about 30 minutes to accomplish the mission. Flight 1549 had not yet hit 3,000 feet in altitude, and had roughly three and a half minutes until they were in the Hudson. The key is to go through a sequential process; when you go through this process and egos don’t get in the way, it is amazing what can be accomplished in a very short amount of time.

As Sully guided the plane and communicated with the air traffic controllers, Jeff went through the necessary procedures; this included constantly calling out the altitude and air speed, which is critical to a successful landing.

The teamwork that helped land Flight 1549 goes beyond what took place in the cockpit that afternoon. The flight controller who worked with them made telephone calls to the other airports and cleared the radio frequency. When he communicated with Flight 1549 he left the phone line open so others could hear the details; they in turn contacted the Port Authority who was already dispatching a rescue team, allowing for a speedy water recovery.

Levity is always important. Jeff says that just after Sully announced to the passengers "brace for impact," he asked Jeff, "Got any other ideas?"

Within moments, frogmen stormed the cold Hudson River and vessels surrounded the plane, anxious to help the passengers. Just as the pilots maintained their control, the flight attendants never panicked. Again, extensive training took over. A majority of passengers were compliant and followed the crewmember instructions, another key factor.

Now it was time for the team of rescuers to take over. As the passengers boarded the boats, Sully and Jeff walked the cabin to ensure everyone was off the airplane before they exited. Sully has said it was nearly 30 minutes before he knew everyone on board Flight 1549 was safe.

Jeff also mentioned the training; he said prior to the 1980s, airline pilots received virtually no leadership training. This all changed in the late 80s, and Jeff credits the successful water landing they performed that cold winter day to a new kind of training.

A complete overhaul took place as part of this new training; pilots were now taught not only how to fly the aircraft, but also who they are as pilots and how to lead and work as a team. Several new rules went into play, including the assignment of specific duties and responsibilities.

This new training, along with the new rules and regulations, allowed both Jeff and Sully to know their roles and responsibilities. They both knew and understood the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and Jeff said, "Procedures are the foundation to handling change." This also means Jeff and Sully had intuitive knowledge of each other, though they had only worked together a few days.

Jeff recalls that once the plane came to a rest and before they began the evacuation procedures, Sully looked to Jeff and said, "That wasn’t so bad."