Exactly 10 years ago today, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles successfully guided a US Airways jet to an emergency landing in the icy Hudson River after a birdstrike crippled both engines shortly after taking off.

What follows is an excerpt from my book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, detailing the amazing story of what happened in the harrowing 208 seconds that followed impact, and the role emotional intelligence played in those critical moments.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 began its route from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina. 

For Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, it was just another routine flight, one of thousands he had flown over a career that spanned decades. 

But just before the plane had risen to three thousand feet, Sullenberger and his first officer Jeff Skiles noticed a flock of geese flying directly at them. In less than a second, the birds collided with the airplane, severely damaging both engines. 

“As the birds hit the plane, it felt like we were being pelted by heavy rain or hail,” says Sullenberger. “It sounded like the worst thunderstorm I’d ever heard . . . Realizing that we were without engines, I knew that this was the worst aviation challenge I’d ever faced. It was the most sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I had ever experienced.” 

Sullenberger experienced a rush of thoughts, beginning with two that were rooted in disbelief: 

This can’t be happeningThis doesn’t happen to me

Those thoughts were accompanied by what the pilot describes as a rush of adrenaline and a spike in blood pressure. In the following minutes, he and Skiles would need to make a series of quick decisions. There were countless factors to be weighed, with no time for extensive communication or detailed calculation. Emergency procedures that were designed to take minutes needed to be performed in seconds. 

Drawing on years of experience, Sullenberger decided that his best chance of saving the 155 lives on board was to attempt something he had never done before; in fact, hardly any pilots had been trained to perform such a feat. 

Sullenberger would attempt to land in the Hudson River. 

Against all odds, just 208 seconds after the engines were struck, Sullenberger valiantly and safely guided the plane into the river, near midtown Manhattan. And due to the collective efforts of the captain, the first officer, traffic control, the flight attendants, and dozens of first responders, all 155 passengers and crew survived. 

The event has become known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson.’

Looking back, the now famous pilot remembers what he felt as if it had just happened. 

“I was aware of my body,” Sullenberger explains in his memoir. “I could feel an adrenaline rush. I’m sure that my blood pressure and pulse spiked. But I also knew I had to concentrate on the tasks at hand and not let the sensations in my body distract me.” 

For millions around the world, what Sullenberger accomplished on that winter day was superhuman, an amazing act of heroism. How did the captain (along with the first officer and traffic control officer) manage to keep his emotions in control and pull off this “miracle”? 

The answers are found not in those amazing moments, but rather in the years of training, practice, and experience that preceded them. 

Practice makes ready

Sullenberger’s success in those incredible moments was no coincidence. A quick look at his resume gives an indication as to the skills he had collected over the years: flying fighter jets as a former Air Force pilot followed by nearly 30 years of piloting commercial aircrafts. Years spent closely investigating airline industry accidents and instructing flight crews on how to respond to crises in the air. 

“I think in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment,” Sullenberger told journalist Katie Couric in an interview.

The Miracle on the Hudson well illustrates the power of emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions--the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

In those heart-pounding life-and-death seconds, Sullenberger managed to demonstrate remarkable self-awareness: the ability to acknowledge and understand the emotional and physical reaction his body was experiencing. He then exercised amazing self-control as he imposed his will on the situation. 

Couric asked Sullenberger if this was a hard thing to do--namely, to overcome such a strong physiological reaction and enforce calm on the situation. Sullenberger’s reply was somewhat surprising: 

“No. It just took some concentration.” 

Emotional intelligence saves the day

To this day, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger insists that he’s not a hero. 

“As [my wife] likes to say, a hero is someone who risks his life running into a burning building,” writes Sullenberger. “Flight 1549 was different, because it was thrust upon me and my crew. We did our best, we turned to our training, we made good decisions, we didn’t give up . . . and we had a good outcome. I don’t know that ‘heroic’ describes that. It’s more that we had a philosophy of life, and we applied it to the things we did that day, and the things we did on a lot of days leading up to it.” 

While you may never encounter circumstances quite like this, you will be faced with life-altering situations. Your ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence will impact the decisions you make in these moments. But what can you do to develop those abilities? 

It all begins with preparation. 

You must train your emotional abilities--by recognizing the power of your emotions and learning how to direct them in a way that’s beneficial. Emotions are instinctive, so you won’t be able to control exactly how you feel.

But you can control how you react to those feelings--by taking control of your thoughts.

That’s what Captain Sullenberger did 10 years ago, on a day that would forever change his life--and the lives of his crew and passengers.

The ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ didn’t happen by chance. It was the culmination of years of practice, a snapshot of a timeline that included decades of preparation. In all those years, Sullenberger internalized countless useful habits, until they become second nature. 

You can do the same. With concentrated effort and practice, you’ll be able to accomplish extraordinary emotional feats, transforming the strongest of your emotions from a destructive force to a power for good--just like a certain mild-mannered, unassuming pilot did 10 years ago.

Captain Sully may not call himself a hero, but he definitely saved the day.

And that sounds like a hero to me.

Published on: Jan 15, 2019
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